BISMARCK — Nearly half a century after North Dakota ratified the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, debate continues in the Legislature over the amendment — and whether the state’s ratification stands.
“ERA would forever make it illegal to extend benefits, privileges or exemptions to women. ERA, in fact, would do nothing for women,” Rose Christensen told the Senate Government and Veterans Affairs Committee recently. “The ERA should more properly be considered unisex legislation.”
But Kristie Wolff, executive director of North Dakota Women’s Network, told the committee that the amendment “isn’t just about women.” Rather, “the ERA’s guarantee of equal rights would protect both women and men against sex discrimination under the law.”
The measure under consideration by the 2021 Legislature, Senate Concurrent Resolution 4010, seeks to rescind the state’s 1975 ratification of the amendment. It was approved by the Senate on Monday, Feb. 22, and a companion bill is expected to be considered in the House. The campaign for equal rights for women was energized by the growth of the women’s movement in the 1960s, and the amendment was approved by Congress in 1971 and sent to the states for ratification.
But by the deadline set by Congress, only 35 state legislatures had ratified the ERA, three short of the 38 required by the Constitution. Further complicating the issue, several states voted to rescind their ratifications, though it remains unclear whether states can take back their initial approvals. In addition, three states have recently added ratifications, bringing the total to 38 — if the reversals are ignored.
That issue also has been part of the debate in this session of the North Dakota Legislature. The sponsor of the resolution, Sen. David Clemens, R-West Fargo, argued in committee that because the ERA didn’t receive ratification by 38 states by the due date set by Congress — March 22, 1979 — it is no longer valid law in North Dakota.
SCR 4010 is similar to a resolution proposed last session by Rep. Chuck Damschen, R-Hampden. That resolution passed in the House but was killed in the Senate.
This year, the Senate committee voted 6-1 to recommend that the resolution be adopted and ratification rescinded. A vote is expected in the full Senate shortly.
Thomasine Heitkamp, a UND professor and president of ERA Now, a Facebook group of about 700 members who advocate for adoption of the amendment and on other issues, was a 21-year-old student and present when the 1975 Legislature ratified it.
“It was a great day,” she said. “I felt like North Dakota was joining other states and we were part of something really wonderful. It ignited my activism, and I thought it was the start of good things happening legislatively.”
Heitkamp, a sister of former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., helped lead a post card campaign in 2019 to oppose that move to rescind ratification, which fell just short. She said she is less confident this session.
“I never thought we’d be at this place today,” she said. “Now we’re feeling very gloomy about the outcome.”
Supporters of SCR 4010 maintain that in addition to being a moot issue, the ERA is unnecessary at best and potentially harmful to women.
“Women do not need the ERA because their rights are already protected by the Constitution,” Bea Streifel told the committee. “In addition, the ERA could be used to overturn all restrictions on abortion.”
Linda Thorson, state director of Concerned Women for America, testified in committee that the ERA is not about equal rights. “It is about the promotion of a genderless agenda through the suppression of natural distinctions and differences between men and women,” she said.
Brandi Hardy, legislative director of the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition and an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, opposed reversing the state’s stand. In her committee testimony, Hardy discussed her time in the service and her thoughts on the argument the ERA would remove the exemption of women from the draft.
“I find this resolution offensive. Protecting our country is a privilege, not a punishment,” Hardy said. “There is honor, dignity, and integrity serving in our Armed Forces. To suggest women are incapable or too fragile for service or a draft is demeaning to our long fight for true equality.”
Wolff, of the women’s network, said she doesn’t believe North Dakota’s ratification of the ERA can be rescinded. “History tells us that we can’t,” she said, adding that Article V of the Constitution says nothing about time limits on ratification. “The only question for a state is whether to ratify or not,” she said. “I don’t understand why we would want to roll back time on equality or why we would want to send the message that we don’t believe in equality.”
Last month, bipartisan legislation was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate to remove the time limits set to ratify the ERA.
“Passage of the ERA would really make a critical statement about equality,” Wolff said. “If the legislature is doing something that we as constituents don’t agree with, we need to be vocal, we need to be loud; we need to let them know.”