On Women’s Equality Day last month, a group of spirited women rights activists rallied in the state Capitol, calling on the Florida Legislature to finally ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 2020.
“We only need one more state to ratify, and we want it to be our state. The state of Florida,” said Linda Miklowitz, who represents the National Council of Jewish Women.
The activists were strategic: They also held simultaneous news conferences across the state that day in front of the offices of four Florida GOP leaders. That’s because there’s no way the ERA will go anywhere next year without the support of Republicans who control both chambers of the Legislature.
A key to success could be whether female GOP lawmakers will support and push the long-awaited and controversial ERA, a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would guarantee equal legal rights to all citizens, regardless of sex.
Supporters believe there’s momentum — particularly with 2020 marking the centennial of women’s suffrage. And some female Florida Republicans are already on board, such as Tampa Rep. Jackie Toledo.
“I think it’s time and I think this is the year to do it,” Toledo said.
The Athena Society is one of several groups in Florida pushing to get the Legislature to pass a specific resolution in support of the ERA in the 2020 session.
Last month in Tampa, Mayor Jane Castor joined with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and about 170 other friends at a downtown venue hosted by the Tampa-based organization. The event was all about rallying around the idea of Florida ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) next year.
Mayor Castor – a former Republican turned Democrat who served with the Tampa Police Department for decades – says the ERA is not a partisan issue. “It shouldn’t be,” Castor said. “Every citizen in the United States should be treated equally and I don’t know how anyone can disagree with that.”
The Athena Society was formed in the mid-1970s to promote equality and opportunity for all women. That’s the era when momentum for the ERA was at its zenith — an amendment which, at its core, protects women against sexual discrimination.
While women’s rights have (through ups and downs) advanced in the following decades, a group of activists have persisted in trying to get the ERA passed. Then two years ago, the #MeToo movement happened seemingly overnight, energizing the moribund campaign and leading two new states –Illinois and Nevada — to ratify the measure.
That brings the overall count to 37 states now on record as supporting the proposed amendment — just one shy of the total number required to set in motion the process to get the ERA enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
Now activists hope Florida can be the 38th state.
What’s the prognosis for an ERA bill?
Is there actually an appetite in the Florida Legislature to pass the ERA now?
For female Democratic legislators, the answer is yes.
On Friday, Democrat Fentrice Driskell from Hillsborough County introduced the ERA resolution in the House for the 2020 session, and Jacksonville Democrat Audrey Gibson did so in the Senate. North Miami Rep. Dotie Joseph proposed a similar measure in the spring 2019 session, but it went nowhere.
But what about Republican female lawmakers?
Earlier this month during legislative committee hearings, the Phoenix reached out randomly to several female GOP members to get their thoughts on the ERA.
“I’d love to see it move,” says Pasco County state Rep. Amber Mariano, a Republican who intends to be a co-sponsor of the ERA resolution.
When asked if she believes other Republican female House members will support it, she said she wasn’t sure.
Lizbeth Benacquisto is the highest- ranking female Republican in the state Senate. The Fort Myers lawmaker told the Phoenix that, “I am a very strong and independent woman, and I always look for ways to advance the cause of highlighting and supporting great women in our communities on every level and all the work that they do.”
When asked if that meant she supported or opposed voting for the ERA, Benacquisto said, “I value the voice of women, the equality of our opinions and our work, and as bills work through the Legislature, I cast my vote in the things that I believe in.”
“I’ve actually been a co-sponsor of that ERA bill in the past, and it just never seems to get the juice behind it,” says Rep. Holly Raschein, who represents Monroe County and part of Miami-Dade in the state House. But she also admits, “I don’t hear much from my constituency about it.”
Tampa Rep. Toledo noted that 2020 will mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing and protecting women’s right to vote. When asked if she thought her colleagues would support the ERA bill if it came before the House, she said, “I think there is (support), but I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to my colleagues.”
Toledo added, “If we can get it done, let’s get it done, and now’s the time to do it.”
Is ERA still relevant? And what about the timetable?
Lorna Taylor, a Tampa businesswoman and current head of the Athena Society, cites two talking points to rebut criticism that in 2019, the ERA is no longer relevant.
“One is that women are protected enough with the various laws that we have in place. But the reality is that laws can be rolled back by a simple act of Congress,” she says.
The other argument she hears often is that gender is already protected under the Constitution, citing a poll conducted by ERA supporters in 2016 that said 80 percent of Americans believe men and women are already guaranteed equal rights in the Constitution.
In making the case that women aren’t protected in the Constitution, ERA advocates quote the late conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The judge told California Lawyer Magazine in 2011, that “certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t.”
Still, questions remain about whether it’s too late to pursue the ERA.
Legal scholars argue that the U.S. Supreme Court previously ruled that the exact length and extension of ratification deadlines for constitutional amendments is best left to Congress, which in fact extended the original timeline for the ERA from 1979 to 1982.
Also at issue is that five states that originally ratified the ERA in the 1970s (Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, South Dakota and Tennessee), have subsequently withdrawn their approval.
Would that impact whether a Florida ratification would count? Toledo acknowledged the dispute — but said it shouldn’t be a barrier to supporting ERA.
What does Florida’s lieutenant governor think? (She’s a woman)
The Florida Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commemoration Committee was created during the 2019 legislative session. Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez chairs the committee, which is charged with ensuring a statewide observance of the centennial of women’s suffrage in 2020.
“Certainly we want to make sure that we’re looking at opportunities for everyone to be on the same page,” Nuñez told the Phoenix when asked about her thoughts on the ERA. “We have to see what they’re (lawmakers) going to put forward and we’ll take a look at it then.”
Samara Sodos says her recent experience in corporate America has persuaded her that the ERA is desperately needed.
A former television news reporter and public relations executive in Florida and Wisconsin, Sodos resigned as head of communications with the Tampa Port Authority this summer after nearly two years because of what she said was “institutionalized gender inequality.”
“Despite the groundswell of new support for the ERA, I have heard in private circles local leaders quietly discussing how they will make sure this never makes it to the legislature. In those moments, I recognize there is a real war against women,” Sodos told the Phoenix in an email last week.
“Any society which supports gender discrimination also breeds sexual harassment and hostile work environments,” she said. “#Metoo addressed the sexual harassment and workplace violence, but not the gender discrimination. The only way this will change is if we alter who is sitting at the table and how much they are getting paid. Power only understands power.”
Sodos adds that she doesn’t believe the measure will pass in the Legislature unless “brave men on all sides of the political spectrum…stand up and make this happen.”
How to get men to vote yes on ERA
With men often chairing committees in the Legislature, they’ll likely be the ones making decisions on whether lawmakers will take a vote on ERA.
In the spring 2019 legislative session, Naples Republican Bob Rommel chaired the first committee that addressed the ERA resolution, but he didn’t bring it up for a hearing.
“We had a really robust agenda, and for something like that, it’s going to require a tremendous amount of time,” Rommel told the Phoenix.
Adding that he’s “no constitutional scholar,” Rommel also believes the deadline for Congress to approve the ERA has already passed.
“We already have these anti-discrimination laws, but we’ll see,” Rommel said. “If someone files a bill, if we can fit it into the agenda, we’ll talk about it. I know some people talked about it being symbolic, and our job is not to do symbolic things. Our job is to pass good legislation that protects individuals.”
Assuming that Rommel would allow a hearing, what might Republican female lawmakers think?
“I’m sure we’ll talk about it at the women’s caucus this year,” said Rep. Amber Mariano. “I think it’s a challenge because the timeline has already passed on it. I think that’s where a lot of the pushback comes.”