Why the Equal Rights Amendment Would Endanger Women’s Equality: Lessons from Colorblind Constitutionalism
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
The purpose of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to those who drafted it and those who worked for nearly a century to see it ratified, is women’s equality. The ERA may be on the cusp of ratification depending on congressional action and potential litigation. Its supporters continue to believe the ERA would advance women’s equality. Their belief, however, may be gravely mistaken. The ERA would likely endanger women’s equality. The reason is that the ERA would likely prohibit government from acting “on account of sex” and, therefore, from acting on account of or in response to sex inequality. Put simply, government would have to ignore sex, including sex inequality.
Consider race. The purpose of the Equal Protection Clause (EPC) to those who drafted and ratified it was racial equality. In the late twentieth century, however, the Court began interpreting the EPC in a way that prevents further progress toward racial equality. Through its “strict scrutiny” test, the Court has essentially imposed on states and the federal government a constitutional rule of “colorblindness,” a rule that prohibits state-sponsored decisions that take account of race even when aimed at reducing racial inequality and even when pursued through laws that employ race-neutral means. As race-equality scholars know all too well, colorblind constitutionalism tends to lock in racial inequality.
This article argues that the ERA likewise threatens to lock in women’s inequality. Currently, the Court applies “intermediate scrutiny” to sex-based classifications under the EPC, a scrutiny that prohibits virtually all state-sponsored sex distinctions that harm women. Intermediate scrutiny, however, allows sex distinctions that promote women’s opportunities or otherwise advance women’s equality. Under the ERA, the Court would likely apply “strict scrutiny,” which essentially amounts to a constitutional rule of “sex-blindness,” prohibiting state-sponsored decisions that take account of sex even when designed to advance women’s equality and even when pursued through laws that employ sex-neutral means. Furthermore, the ERA would endanger single-sex settings, especially educational and extracurricular programs.
Moreover, the ERA would not prohibit any state-sponsored discrimination against women that is not already unconstitutional under the EPC. Nor does the ERA apply at all to the private sector in which most of the concerns of ERA supporters occur, such as unequal pay, sexual harassment, and violence against women. It is also doubtful that the ERA would have any impact on reproductive rights. What is needed is an alternative ERA that would explicitly authorize, or even require, proactive efforts to advance women’s equality.