by Elnora Mae Phillips
*This post contains accounts of violence that could be triggering to some readers*
“You don’t understand how the system works, and you don’t stand a chance! You’ll have no choice but to come crawling back to me!” He said those words as he towered over me lying on the floor. He had just thrown me into the wall with such force that my body was permanently broken, permanently to be in acute pain. Our twin babies were barely two months old, and our oldest child was still a toddler.
Of course I called 911, and they came and took him away. Nothing was ever done to punish him, or to heal him. He remained a violent man. And he was right, I didn’t understand how the system worked. All I could do was make certain that whenever the pain reduced me to crawling, it was always away from him, never towards.
I also didn’t understand the dream I had shortly after that night he threw me. In the dream I was already an old woman sitting at a table when a young woman came in, disheveled and disarrayed, bloody. She sat down at the table with me. When I asked where she had just come from she said “I’ve been out in the streets with thousands of other women, demanding gender equality in our US Constitution.”
I told her that wasn’t necessary. I told her we had already taken care of all that when I was young. We had marched. We had burned our bras. Long before that, other women marched for decades, became bloodied and imprisoned, and finally won the vote.
She told me again that women were outside marching in the streets in multitudes, and that they were being physically beaten and arrested for their efforts. I insisted that was all unnecessary, we had already taken care of all that. She leaned forward and stared at me intensely. “You mean you once had a chance to change all this, and you didn’t?” I was sitting straight up in bed in a cold sweat when I woke up from that dream. After all, women were doing so well back then when I was young. I didn’t understand.
I have spent almost three decades studying, trying to figure out how the system works, gathering unconnected pieces of the puzzle. Finally about a year ago I read a book called “Equal Means Equal” by Jessica Neuwirth that caused me to suddenly understand every bit of it. All the pieces fell together into place, and I was looking at a complete picture spread out before me. This book showed me how it’s all in the language, all in the meanings of the words. I was a child in school when I noticed the words did not include me, and I asked about that. I was told then that “men” also meant women.
He always knew he could throw me and break me and get away with it. He had been taught this, and I had only been lied to. When it is a matter of law, if it does not say “and women” then it does not include women. Because of my gender, under the current interpretation of our US Constitution I have no legal rights to protection from being thrown into a wall, or anything else he had an impulse to do to me. I was his property to do with as he wanted, just like the former slaves who were considered the property of their masters before the Civil War. As “Equal Means Equal” explained to me, I am Constitutionally still not an equal person. ‘The original US Constitution of 1787 was founded on English common law, which did not recognize women as citizens or as individuals with legal rights. A woman was expected to obey her husband or nearest male kin, and if she was married, her person and her property were owned by her husband.’ (Equal Means Equal, P. 118)
At the State level, many individual State Constitutions have been amended already to protect gender equality in those states. At the Federal level women have not yet won “personhood” status under our US Constitution. Women are still legally “chattel” under Federal law, which means property, just as women were legally the property of men in Ancient Rome. Because of our gender, and because of some incorrect interpretations of the sexist language that was used in 1787 in drafting our US Constitution, women have never been included in American law as individuals with legal rights.
The US Constitution Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) failed, by 3 states, to become Federal law before it was pronounced un-ratified in 1982 because of expired time limits. At that time 15 states had failed to ratify the ERA, most of them in the Deep South, plus Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. Those 15 states continue to deny equal legal rights to every woman in the 35 states that did ratify the ERA, as well as to the women in their own un-ratified states, to this day. Apparently, the failure of the ERA to become ratified and become law was not understood. A 2001 poll showed that 72% of Americans incorrectly believed that there is now gender equality in our US Constitution.
The ERA is being reintroduced in Congress this year, as it has been every year since 1982. It needs to be voted upon by both the House and the Senate, and requires timely ratification in 38 states. We need to understand how our legal system works. The book “Equal Means Equal” by Jessica Neuwirth, the documentary “Equal Means Equal” by Kamala Lopez (scheduled to be shown nationwide during March), and The ERA Education Project are good places to start. We truly have come a long way. We can use our wits and our financial wherewithal to bring about this change now without taking to the streets again, by simply putting back on the shelves any goods or services that originate in non-ratified states until they proudly bear the Gold Star Rating of ERA Ratified States. Waiting in our pocketbooks is the solution to our exclusion. Follow the money, and make the words include all genders.