What Argument Against The Renewed ERA Could Feminists Face?

This is a guest post by Autumn Sandeen of Pam’s House Blend and LGBT Weekly. Her full bio is after the jump.

Recently Rachel Maddow ran a segment entitled Equal Rights Amendment Sees Renewed Interest on her MSNBC show. In the segment, she indicated that the ERA has been reintroduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and the Senate by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) as a response to the recent Wal-Mart decision by the Supreme Court of the United States.

The plain language of the ERA, in the 1970’s and now, is as follows:

Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

In the segment, Maddow identified the 1970’s arguments against the ERA to show how poorly those arguments hold up today.

Maddow identified columnist Phyllis Schlafly as the 1970’s leading opponent of the ERA. Schlafly’s, and her peers’, arguments against the ERA included “the potty problem” — legalization of unisex bathrooms — as well as the arguments that making men and women equal under the law would make women and men the same thing; would push women out of the home and into the workplace; would allow “homosexuals” to be married, adopt children, and teach in schools; would (under a draft) force women to go into military combat.

Maddow asks the question at the near the end of her piece:

Why couldn’t the ERA become law now? Do the arguments from the 1970s still stand up now? Really?

Most of the arguments against the ERA in the 1970s don’t hold up as well now — most of these arguments wouldn’t resonate with the general public to the level that these did in the 1970s. You could count on, though, that the argument about how mandating equality would mean erasing all differences between men and women would still be used as a key argument, as well as the argument against marriage equality.

So if feminist interest, and the general public’s interest, in the ERA returned to prominence in the 2010s, what would be the new arguments against the ERA?

I have a good idea what one of the major arguments against the ERA would be.Thumbnail link: Traditional Values Coalition's 'New Restroom Design'

In the trans community, we refer to a likely argument as the “bathroom bill” meme. It’s transgender specific: the argument is that “men in dresses” will enter women’s restrooms and prey on women and children in public restrooms. This argument is brought up by religious right adherents pretty much every time there’s employment or public accommodation of anti-discrimination legislation that includes protections based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity (e.g. here, here, here, and here). A radio ad for by the Massachusetts Family Institute’s No Bathroom Bill website is here.

It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see that the same “bathroom bill” meme that’s used to argue against ordinary equality for transgender people in anti-discrimination legislation would be used by the religious right and other social conservatives against the ERA.

Should the ERA again become a priority for feminists, the feminist community would then be confronted with choices on how to combat the “bathroom bill” meme:

Of course, a fourth alternative is that the feminist community so divides over how to approach the “bathroom bill” meme against ERA that it becomes functionally paralyzed.

So if the ERA should again become a prominent feminist issue, then feminists are going to have to come to terms with the reality that trans women really exist and, via the “bathroom bill” meme, would be a prominent part of the public discourse about the amendment. In my mind, how the feminist community would come to terms with the reality of trans women is far from settled.

Autumn Sandeen is a transgender activist who writes for Firedoglake’s Pam’s House Blend and the Trans Progressive column at LGBT Weekly. As a disabled transgender military veteran, she twice in 2010 — with other LGBT veterans and activists — handcuffed herself to the White House Fence for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/katrinka/ Kathryn

    I’m sorry, was there some sort of confusion over whether the feministing community supported tans women and men I might add. Was this actually an issue and is there really that distinct a failure in support for trans people in the greater feminist community? I know that trans causes are probably not as well understood or represented my cisgender feminists as they should be, but who’s throwing rocks at trans equality here?

    Honestly, what are people’s opinions of shared/unisex bathrooms as a means to give parity in the workplace and public to the trans community?

    • http://www.cs.brown.edu/people/rebecca/ ADHD PhD

      The biggest barrier to this often isn’t physical changes to the facility, but health codes, workplace and industry regulations that require “separate male and female facilities” even if each restroom is a single lockable facility that can only be used by one person at a time. I was health and safety director at a summer camp that rented space from Smith College, and we had to put up signs to swap genders on some bathrooms and in some cases temporarily make unisex bathrooms back into single sex bathrooms because our male:female ratio was different and our regulations were different as a summer camp vs a college campus.

      I think shared/unisex bathrooms are a great idea, not only for trans people but also for children and caregivers who are opposite sex, people with disabilities who might need assistance from someone of the opposite sex, and often baby changing tables are only available in the women’s restroom. Unfortunately many regulations supposedly in the interest of public health and safety are standing in the way.

    • http://feministing.com/members/samll/ Sam Lindsay-Levine

      Ms. Sandeen is an activist in this area and presumably has experience in this regard, so I am willing to give full respect to her opinions and anecdotes about how the greater feminist community, outside of our cozy little website here, tend to respond to her in particular and trans equality in general.

      In my opinion the most obvious line that will be employed to combat the “bathroom” meme is to deny that the ERA will change bathroom situations at all.

  • http://feministing.com/members/thinkmama/ Nicole J.

    I don’t understand why some feminists have a problem embracing transwomen into our community of women/feminists. I find it illogical and unethical. Transwomen are not “men in dresses”, but women born into the wrong bodies. If being a woman is only about body parts, then who else should we disallow or shun?

    • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

      I think it partially is a result of resentment. Second-wavers like Germaine Greer have articulated their own reservations well. There is still a belief among some in separatist feminism.

      So in addition to making sure that male allies like yours truly cannot contribute, transwomen are seen as not “authentic” women and also locked out.

    • rose0red

      I can answer this, I think. There are those that feel that because transwomen are generally raised as male that there may be a conscious or unconscious tendency for them to dominate or take over the conversation/debate in the same way cismen tend to. The separatist feminist types that reject transwomen are doing so in an attempt to create a “space” where ciswomen feel that they can take charge (so to speak) and speak their minds in a way they may be reluctant to if they feel there are men around.

      To be clear, I COMPLETELY DISAGREE with this philosophy. The idea that transwomen are exactly like cismen when it comes to expressing dominance seems unfounded to me and certainly doesn’t ring true in my experience. And if it’s just a matter of creating a perception that allows ciswomen feel safe to express themselves, then we’re just allowing ignorance prevail when education is what is called for. But that is the reasoning behind it.

  • http://diaryofamessylady.wordpress.com/ Lauren

    I find it shocking that a feminist would elect not to support trans women.

    My workplace was not-so-recently met with the bathroom issue. An old employee returned after coming out as trans and requested to be able to use the women’s bathroom. HR tried, they really did. There was a huge backlash from the other women in the workplace and, of course, the trans woman in question didn’t feel comfortable using the men’s restroom.

    In the end, they reached a compromise that didn’t work very well. She had to make sure the women’s restroom was empty before using it, and place a special sign outside saying that she was using it so women who didn’t want to share with her could wait until she was done.

    There must be a better way to handle it. “Grow up. That’s why you have stalls,” works well, in my opinion.

    • http://feministing.com/members/toongrrl/ toongrrl

      Did Phyllis Schafly forget the stalls?????????????????????????????????????
      That said, a professor whom I respect very much and is a Reagan Republican, was once the Dean of our college. He stated, when a transgender student asked him on what restroom to use, to the student that whatever he identifies as to go to that restroom. In psychology class he told the class that they have LGBTQ classmates and that they need to respect their right to learn and feel safe in school. He won’t put up with bigotry. He also gave the go-ahead for the now revived Gay-Straight Alliance club to start. Martha Coakely, grow up.

  • http://feministing.com/members/postscript/ Patricia

    That cartoon is ridiculous. And it’s apparently serious? I’ve never really understood why, at this point, bathrooms are gendered–it seems like the people who need them to be separate for religious or personal reasons are less common than those of us who really don’t care who else is in the bathroom.

    • http://feministing.com/members/nikkia/ Nicola Archibald

      I used to work at a company that had only a single 2-stall unisex toilet. Everything was fine, no-one seemed to have any serious problem, other than the usual problems with small company toilets – eg. someone dropping a rather stinky one, forgetting to use the air freshener spray and it being a pain for everyone else until someone goes in and gives it a good spray.

      There again, we tend to ignore religious right types over here (UK) for the most part.

    • http://feministing.com/members/autumn59/ Autumn Sandeen

      Yes Patricia, that was litterally up on the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC)website, as were this one and this one.

      A quote from Andrea Lafferty of the TVC on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act:

      “What kind of shower facilities will have to be designed for she-males? Neither men nor women would want to shower or use restroom facilities with some confused individual with female characteristics from the waist up and male characteristics from the waist down. Businesses should have not have these mandates imposed on them by homosexual activist Barney Frank and his radical allies in Congress.”

      They also released documents for their readers entitled A Gender Identity Disorder Goes Mainstream and What Is A “Sexual Orientation?” — these all need to be read and/or seen to believed.

  • http://feministing.com/members/veroniqueb/ Véronique

    I fail to see how the “bathroom bill meme” has anything to do with potential passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

    • http://feministing.com/members/autumn59/ Autumn Sandeen

      That the ERA is about equality and not public restrooms and showers won’t deter the religious right and other social conservatives from using the “bathroom bill” meme against the ERA. One can see from arguments made by the self-proclaimed Familily Values folk in the 70’s regarding the ERA, as well as those same folk regarding anti-discrimination legislation on the basis of gender identity, arguing facts or arguing basic equality won’t change how they’ll argue against ordinary equality — they will just continue misrepresenting facts and engage in fear mongering as they’ve done for decades.

  • http://feministing.com/members/gabrriel/ Gabe

    I think you misunderstood Coakley’s position. She is pointing out that the bathroom hysteria is totally unfounded and that if the opponents of nondiscrimination provisions want to make these claims then they ought to come up with some evidence.

    I don’t love her because she’s a prosecutor, but she’s really a good person and a strong public supporter of trans rights.

  • http://feministing.com/members/mercedes/ Mercedes Allen

    And by that, I should probably clarify that I’m not calling trans issues fringe (being transsexual myself), but rather the “bathroom bill” meme.