Quick: What’s the most common word in the English language that does not appear anywhere in the U.S. Constitution?
The answer is a revealing one: she. Presidents, senators, and representatives are always designated as “he.” Even the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, simply bans abridgment of that right “on account of sex.”
That resolutely masculine language will not change, no matter what happens over the next few months. But something more significant may: Yesterday, both houses of the Virginia General Assembly approved the Equal Rights Amendment, a change to the Constitution that has been sought by women’s groups since 1923, and which was proposed by Congress nearly half a century ago. The ERA’s operative section reads, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
Virginia’s vote makes it the 38th state to have approved the amendment since it was formally proposed in 1972. Mathematically, that’s more than three-quarters of the 50 states—enough for it to become a constitutional amendment.
But that will not happen easily; nothing in the struggle for women’s equality ever has.
Since even before America’s independence, women have been trying to write themselves into the country’s fundamental law. “Remember the ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors,” Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John, as the Continental Congress debated separating from Britain. Not a chance, the future president replied: “We know better than to repeal our masculine systems.”