Editor’s note: Ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment has long been discussed in the men’s movement, but there was none more passionate about the project than men’s rights activist David Ault, who established the Equal Rights Amendment Project of Men’s Rights and actively lobbied for its ratification from the 1970s onward. The following article by Ault was published in MEN Magazine in 1996, and in honour of his memory we are pleased to republish it at AVfM.—PW
The notion that men need equal rights with women is almost as politically incorrect today as it was in 1978, when I began actively working in Virginia for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Even today, the ERA is often referred to as the “women’s rights amendment.” This limited interpretation is difficult to understand given its wording: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, I distributed pamphlets that explained why women deserve to have equal rights with men. As Vice Chair of the Virginia Equal Rights Amendment Ratification Council, I often passed out our organization’s pamphlet entitled Women of Virginia, Rights You Are Denied.
We did not have a corresponding pamphlet Men of Virginia, Rights You Are Denied. In fact, men’s rights were so excluded from the ERA ratification process that, despite repeated requests by several knowledgeable men, no men were invited to testify on men’s equal rights issues before the U.S. Congressional hearings on ERA ratification.
Harris and Gallup polls informed us then that nearly 60 percent of all Americans favored ERA ratification. Although men were ignored as potential beneficiaries of a ratified ERA, younger men favored the ERA at nearly the same percentage as women. Many older men also supported it.
Despite this majority of women and men in its favor, the ten-year ratification period expired in June 1982 with only 35 of the required 38 states approving its ratification. I recall that some people blamed the ERA’s defeat on men who wanted to keep women “in their place” by denying women equal rights. Particularly targeted for blame were those male legislators from nonratifying states who voted against it.
Upon reflection, perhaps some men are to “blame” for the ERA’s failure to be ratified, but not for the reasons I heard in 1982. During that period of time, I was one of very few men who donated large amounts of their time and money to support ERA ratification. I also voted for political candidates by giving heavy weight to their stand on the ERA. At ERA meetings and workshops, I was often outnumbered by the women present by 10 or 20 to 1. My level of passion in support of the ERA was typical of many American women.
Although many American men supported ERA ratification, their support was more from their heads. Men often explained to me that they supported the ERA for their wife, sister, daughter, or mother. However, they did not donate significant time or money to support its ratification. Judging from the phone calls that I made polling households for ERA support, many men did not vote for pro-ERA candidates as a top priority.
I submit that it was not the men (and women) who opposed the ERA that defeated it. Instead, those men who are largely to “blame” are the majority of men who favored its ratification and yet failed to give it sufficient importance in their lives to see that it passed.
Winning men’s active support for the ERA may be easier today. During recent years, men’s consciousness about their own issues has been raised substantially and the momentum is upward. Men are growing aware of how the narrow gender-role conditioning they receive during society’s indoctrination of them to become protectors and providers negatively affects both their emotional and physical health. They learn that, on average, men not only live 7 years less than women, but men’s quality of life is reduced in trying to live up to this restrictive gender role.
Men are grieving, publicly and privately, for the loss of their fathers and their distance from their own children. They are learning how welfare rules and our father-negative “family” courts separate caring fathers from their children. They are dismayed by the contribution that fatherless families have to the increase in homeless and runaway children, and to teenage suicide, academic failure, drug abuse, violence, and unwed pregnancy.
At the same time that women have control over their parenthood through abortion or adoption, men’s reproductive rights are either ignored or condescendingly dismissed. Men lack the “right to choose” legal fatherhood, but have the responsibility of financial support. Further, men have no corresponding right to either custody or noncustodial access to their children.
Although outlawing female genital mutilation gets national media and Congressional attention, over 60% of American male babies still undergo medically unnecessary, involuntary, and painful infant circumcision.
Men realize that only they have the responsibility to register for selective service and may subsequently face the military draft. Further, as women gain the option of volunteering for combat positions, men are still assigned to combat.
Men see programs instituted to help women, while men’s similar concerns go unacknowledged and unfunded. Examples of neglected areas include male academic difficulties at all educational levels, lack of support for “men’s programs” in higher education, failure to acknowledge and support male victims of domestic violence, lack of affirmative action for men to enter predominately female professions, low levels of government support to homeless men, unequal privacy provisions in public restrooms and dressing rooms, failure to recognize and combat female modes of sexual harassment of men, and more stringent employee dress codes for men.
Men are hurting from 30 years of being the object of unwarranted blame, male-bashing, and negative sex-role stereotyping. As their consciousness increases, men will be more receptive to understanding both the harm done to them by continued pressure to conform to rigid role models and the legal injustices still visited upon them. Men will see how unjustified blame and their traditional stoic conditioning have combined to repress any remedy to their equality issues.
However, when men understand how gender-inclusive application of the ERA will benefit them, their pain, anger, and desire for justice will propel them into action to support ERA ratification. Together with women supporters, they will work to successfully win ERA passage in the U.S. Congress and by the necessary three-quarters of the states.
To make this happen, men’s equality issues must be included in the debate over ERA ratification. The first step within each state is to continue to research and document the areas where men are discriminated against by local, state, and federal law. This includes not only laws written in a gender-biased way, but laws that, although gender-neutral in wording, result in bias against men in practice. Sometimes the remedy will not require changing the law; instead, changing public opinion will result in an equitable application of existing law. In other cases, the law will require modification or elimination.
The second step is to bring men’s equality issues and the ERA remedies to the attention of the public and our legislative bodies. Men might begin by asking each state legislature to memorialize the ERA again, as Washington State did in 1983. Memorialization means that the state legislature passes a resolution asking the U.S. Congress to pass the ERA and to send it out to the states for ratification. However, the reasons expressed this time by each state legislature for memorializing the ERA must include the need for men’s equal rights.
The third step is to secure an invitation for knowledgeable men to testify for the first time before the U.S. Congress when hearings are held again on the ERA. This will have three important benefits. First, it will help to bring the issue of discrimination against men before the entire country. Second, it will increase American men’s identification of ERA ratification with ending this discrimination. Third, it will create an official record of Congress’s intent to include equal rights for men in its justification for the ERA.
This Congressional record will be vital to men after the ERA is ratified, because judges often consider legislative intent in deciding how to apply the law to a specific case. After the Congress records its support for men’s rights, men will find it much easier to use the ERA to right legal injustices against them.
Finally, prepared with our research and buoyed by state and federal recognition of men’s need for the ERA, men must continue to educate the public and join with women in the ERA ratification process. With women and men working together for a gender-inclusive ERA, to quote Susan B. Anthony, “Failure is impossible.”