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A Utah lawmaker is bringing back the Equal Rights Amendment, hoping that times have changed

Posted at 4:50 PM, Dec 02, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-02 19:28:52-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Equal Rights Amendment, which sparked a political and cultural firestorm decades ago in Utah, is poised to return.

Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Taylorsville, plans to introduce legislation on Tuesday that would have Utah ratify the ERA. The Utah State Legislature passing her resolution could make the amendment apply nationwide.

"If we do pass ERA and ratify ERA this year in 2020, we would be the 38th state to do it. That’s important because 38 states means the ERA will move forward," Rep. Kwan said in an interview with FOX 13.

Rep. Kwan said Utah's own constitution includes language that guarantees women and men are treated equally. It's been that way since 1896. But the U.S. Constitution does not.

Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon (photo via Utah State Historical Archives)

Utah has a history of advancing women's rights in its early statehood politics. Seraph Young was the first woman to vote in the nation in 1870 (a painting depicting the historic event hangs over the House of Representatives in the legislature). Utah was also the first suffrage state that ratified the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote. Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, the first woman elected to a state legislature, is now being honored in the U.S. Capitol with a statue brought about by advocates who pushed lawmakers to make her represent Utah in Statuary Hall.

"I think we have forgotten how we were a leader in early women’s rights," Rep. Kwan said.

But the ERA in the 1970s and '80s triggered protests and cultural fights in Utah. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints vocally opposed it, urging its followers to reject the ERA. Feminists and other supporters of the ERA protested outside Temple Square.

Women holding signs at an ERA demonstration against the LDS Church in 1979. (Image courtesy Utah State Historical Society)

A spokesman for the Church declined to comment to FOX 13 on its stance on Rep. Kwan's re-introduced ERA.

The ERA also led to the rise of the Eagle Forum, a conservative group that still maintains a significant presence on Utah's Capitol Hill. An effort by a male lawmaker to introduce the bill in 2017 went nowhere in the legislature and a contemplated 2020 ballot initiative has not yet materialized.

"It would be very harmful to women to bring that back. That’s why we worked so hard all those years ago to defeat it," said Gayle Ruzicka, the president of the Utah Eagle Forum.

Ruzicka said the ERA is not in women's best interests.

"They can draft women, if the draft comes back. Women serving on the front lines," she told FOX 13 on Monday. "Restrooms and gyms and swimming pools where women want and need privacy, under the Equal Rights Amendment, we could lose all those things."

Rep. Kwan countered that a lot of those decades-old fears about the ERA have already come to pass and are not considered a significant problem anymore. Women now serve in the military and there are gender-neutral bathrooms, for example.

"The old political arguments about ERA don’t hold weight today," Rep. Kwan said.

Ruzicka said she anticipated the ERA returning and is already "working together with other groups to make sure this does not happen in Utah."

Demonstrators at a 1979 protest at Temple Square in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. (Photo courtesy Utah State Historical Society)

Rep. Kwan said she has already been lining up co-sponsors on Capitol Hill. They include women and men, Republican and Democrat. Earlier this year, the legislature unanimously passed a resolution she ran that supported "equal political, civil, and religious rights contained in the Utah Constitution and recommends the inclusion of similar language in the United States Constitution."

Rep. Kwan said given recent community discussions about disparate treatment of women in Utah including salaries and opportunity, passage of her legislation could send a powerful message to the nation.

"I want to talk about changing that narrative about Utah and to show that we have a culture of love and respect for women," Rep. Kwan said. "And to have a conversation about the symbolism like a grand gesture of ERA would bring not only to the state, but to the nation."