President Barack Obama’s Inauguration Speech: Standing for Equality

This morning, on the holiday celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday, President Barack Obama was publicly sworn into office for his second term as President of the United States.  His inaugural speech was 2,095 words long. It covered many different issues from the role of government to freedom, poverty, the military, education, international interactions, and climate change.

Its over-arching message to me is that as a country and as individuals, we need come together to stand up for equality for all.

President John F. Kennedy, Jr. said something similar in his 1961 inaugural speech when he asked all Americans to help each other. He said then, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

Martin Luther King expressed similar sentiments in his “I Have a Dream Speech” in 1963:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character….I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification’ — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers….I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’

I hope that Barack Obama’s words resonate as well. In that vein, here is how I think he best spoke about equality for all. Maybe part of this will become part of the lexicon of great Presidential speeches in the future.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.

Our journey is not complete until every one is equal, cared for, cherished, and safe from harm.  Thank you for your inspiring words, Mr. President. May all of usfrom you as leader of the US to each of us in our homes and communitieswork together  to create a better, more accepting country and world.

Why We are Pushing for Ratification of the ERA (the Equal Rights Amendment)

Today at noon, President Barack Obama was sworn into office in a private ceremony.  Tomorrow, he will be publicly sworn in for and give his second-term Inaugural speech on the western steps of the US Capitol. He won his second term much to the efforts and votes of women and people of color.

We have come a long way since the 14th Amendment was ratified, ending slavery and adding people of color to full protections under our US Constitution.  Yet after all this time, the women who helped put President Obama into office for his second term do not yet have that same level of protection.

Women worked to end slavery and put men of color on the same constitutional footing as white, land-owning men. It’s now our turn.

I have been working with an amazing online group of women and men dedicated to equality for all. Our current effort is to gain 25,000 signatures on a White House ERA petition by February 10, 2012.  There are now three weeks left before this deadline is reached; so far, we have gathered over one quarter of the necessary signatures required.  When we reach the 25,000 signatures, President Obama’s administration has agreed to respond to our request to

Vigorously support women’s rights by fully engaging in efforts to ratify the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

Many people have asked, “Why this amendment is needed,” or “Isn’t it already part of the US Constitution?”  The bottom-line question being asked, “Why should I sign this in the first place?”

One of my colleagues has put together a well-written, cogent argument to answer these questions and I asked her to submit a guest blog.

Marti J. Sladek graciously agreed.  Ms. Sladek is an attorney in Chicago. She owns “Speaking Up & Speaking Out” through which she speaks, writes and advocates on women’s issues, work, the law and public policy. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook and Linked In. Here’s what she has to say…

Yes, the Equal Rights Amendment is back. No, it is not already the law of the land, although 3/4 of Americans believe it is. A new generation of feminist leaders has joined and breathed new life into the fight to put equality and equal protection for women and girls into the US Constitution. The first version, written in suffragette days and resurrected by the 70s “women’s libbers’, was passed by 2/3 of Congress then fell three states short of the necessary 3/4 for ratification. That is why you see references to the “three-state strategy” in efforts to resurrect the Amendment.

There was very little activity surrounding the effort on this amendment for more than three decades. This raises questions about whether, even if three more states vote for it, the ratification would be valid, because the legislation that began it did not address whether there was a deadline; some say that after such a long dormancy, the issue was DOA. Others, including some formal legal opinions, say if no deadline was part of the law, then the amendment still lives. Note: if you want to refresh your knowledge on how the Constitution gets modified, read Article V.

One way or the other, we have to get it done. Justice Scalia himself underscored the need when he told a legal publication in the fall of 2011 that the 14th Amendment does not protect women as its intent was only racial equality.

Did you know that “gender” was inserted into some civil rights bills in the 60s as a protected class for discrimination purposes primarily in a failed effort to defeat civil rights legislation? So some of the protections we women have are somewhat accidental!

Lately, we have seen serious attacks on gains women have made through legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964–Title VII, employment discrimination; Title IX, discrimination in education at all levels; Title X, gender equity in health care, including reproductive rights–and even laws governing equal pay. Wisconsin rescinded their state Equal Pay Act last year. As we saw during the 2012 campaign season, efforts to limit or gut these and other civil rights laws such as the Voting Rights Act are underway at the state and federal level.

Courts have further eroded the impact of these laws. The Congress is less likely to overturn negative decisions from the Supreme Court than in even the recent past. Some GOP members who used to sponsor ERA have withdrawn support for fear of the Tea Party. New state legislatures could even try to rescind previous ratification of ERA! “Personhood” for embryos and eggs–but of course, not sperm–as well as restrictions on plain vanilla birth control, redefining rape, forced vaginal probes…the list goes on.

The arguments against ERA in the 1970s were speculative then and have been proven silly over the last thirty years. The horror of unisex washrooms? Give me a break: they exist all over the world, both public and in all our homes. Drafting women? No more military draft, and women are serving, yes, even in combat, albeit unofficially. The list goes on. And some bugaboos have been superseded by discrimination cases and the economic reality of women working outside the home. Plus the states that do have equal protection for females in their own constitutions are doing fine, thank you. It will be interesting, entertaining and angering to watch opponents claim, oh so wrongly, that we simply don’t need it.

Why do we need Equal Rights Amendment? Because, as we have seen, state and federal laws can be changed relatively easily. Because the courts do not give as much consideration to gender as they do to race, which is specifically mentioned in the (amended) constitution. When a government body has a policy that tends to treat one race differently than another, there is a high level of scrutiny: they have to have a truly compelling reason to get away with that kind of discrimination, along the lines of legal analysis for violating freedom of speech. Gender only gets “intermediate” scrutiny. Just a pretty good reason for treating women differently suffices. ERA could well change that.

Likewise, that kind of “logic” is reflected in analysis of issues such as sexual harassment, civil cases that generally involve private employers, landlords, etc. When a person is singled out because of race, called names, etc. the cases reflect the presumption that such conduct was unwanted and is inherently offensive (the “N” word for example). In sexual harassment, the victim must meet an initial of burden of proof that the inappropriate behavior (the “B” or even “C” word) is unwelcome and creates a hostile work environment, an extra legal hoop to jump through compared to other kinds of discrimination. The ERA could help change that, too.

So the ERA is NOT “just” symbolic, as important and critical as the symbol is. Think the symbolism is not important? Then think of how we wear religious icons as jewelry, or wave the flag on the Fourth of July. And think of that symbolism as we try to tell emerging democracies to give a fair shake to women. Such hypocrisy when we don’t have equality even on paper here! How do we explain this to them, let alone our own daughters and granddaughters? (I had a tough time trying to explain this in Cuba where women have had legal equality for decades, albeit aligned against cultural machismo; A Cuban legislator advised me, “Keep fighting!”)

The ultimate decision is with the States, generally your state legislatures. Believe it or not, it is buried in committee again if it exists at all in many states and was actually defeated in Arkansas, Florida and Virginia in the last two legislative sessions. The old red herrings about gay agendas, ordaining women as pastors in conservative religions, and, in Virginia, admitting women into the Citadel military academy prevailed. Or simply “too costly” or “not a high priority.” Even in a blue state such as Illinois, it doesn’t get out of committee despite being reintroduced year after year in the General Assembly; ironically, Illinois put gender equality into our new state constitution in 1971 but did not pass the federal one in 1982–go figure!

For those who think all this women’s rights stuff is passé here, think about something that struck me recently. My Mom is still alive, old but going strong, and an active voter in a swing state. (Oh, how we agree to disagree on politics!) Women got to vote in the federal election for the first time in HER lifetime, only one generation back. How far have we really come, baby? I believed back-in-the-day that I would be around long enough to see a woman in the White House, long enough to see the Constitution specifically address my rights. I have waited long enough. Have you?

ERA words button

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

This is all it says; why such controversy?

So… take a moment, go to http://wh.gov/P6gP, sign in (or create) your White House account, and then sign the petition.  Once done, please spread the word to your friends, colleagues, and family to do the same.