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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Listen Up: Constitutional Amendments Matter

I want to write about constitutional amendments. Please don’t turn the page. It matters.

I recently spoke at a judiciary conference on diversity. For that, I reviewed beaucoup cases of discrimination against women – as late as 1961, for instance, the US Supreme Court ruled in Hoyt vs. Florida that all-male juries were fine, even in the case of a female defendant. After the speech, the female judge who introduced me asked me to talk about the ERA.

I answered briefly, and we had gone on to other things when a young man – but old enough to practice law – raised his hand and asked what ERA stood for. The question hit me like a rock of reality: the next generation knows nothing about the tremendous and ultimately futile efforts of millions of women (and men) to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

So listen up, children. The Founding Fathers – and yes, that is the right term, as no women were involved – wrote a constitution that is very difficult to change. It specifies that any amendment requires passage by 2/3 of both houses of Congress and then ratification by ¾ of the state legislatures. By the time we have that kind of consensus on any issue, it is likely to be passé.

But that is what women had to do to win the vote. The Supreme Court ruled in Minor vs. Happersett (1874) that a Missouri voter registrar named Happersett could refuse to register Virginia Minor because she was a woman. States were free to define their voters – and as shown in the Florida case above, they also were free to pass any number of laws that discriminated against women.

This was true even though the 15th Amendment explicitly said that “all citizens” were eligible to vote. That amendment was added to the Constitution in 1870, after the Civil War, with the intention of assuring the vote to black men. Former Confederate states were forced to ratify it as a condition of reentering the Union. Because its language was entirely gender-neutral, women in several states sued to be allowed to vote.

The Court took up Minor’s case, and she was a married woman. Unmarried women who paid property taxes also sued, but the “justices” ignored their arguments about “no taxation without representation.” In a decision that quoted the Bible much more than the Constitution, they said that states could continue to exclude half of their populations.

The only way to overturn a Supreme Court decision is to amend the Constitution, and feminists toiled from 1874 to 1920 to get the necessary two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of the states. Even then, the 19th Amendment granted only the vote, not any assurance of equal rights in other law, and so more radical feminists filed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923.

Almost a half-century later, in March of 1972, Congress finally passed the ERA by the necessary super-majority, and 30 of the essential 38 states had ratified by the end of 1973. Opposition began to develop after the separate issue of abortion was raised with the Court’s 1973 decision in Roe vs. Wade. The Republican Party, which had included the ERA in its platform for decades, withdrew its support in 1980, and time expired during the Reagan administration.

* * *

This review of the amendment process is not irrelevant, as several organizations are working now for constitutional amendments to overrule other Supreme Court decisions.

Everyone who reads this column is aware of the Citizens United decision and its huge effect on campaign spending. By equating money with free speech, the Court has allowed billionaires to potentially buy elections. A great deal of ink has been spilled on this, but almost no one has spelled out the entire name of the PAC that brought the case.

I’ve hesitated for years about writing on it, but I’m going to do so now: the PAC’s full name is Citizens United, Not Timid. Why, I asked myself, would anyone adopt such an awkward handle? Then I realized what the acronym is. I still can’t write it, but you are smart enough to figure it out. It helps to know that the PAC was formed to defeat Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. It not only represents unlimited money, but also unlimited misogyny.

* * *

Okay, something less shocking.

When women started their effort for the vote, it was to be the 16th Amendment, but in the end, it would be the 19th. The 18th was prohibition (yes, it was men who banned alcohol, not women), and with few people noticing, we recently celebrated the centennial of the 16th and 17th Amendments.

The 16th might well fail today. It authorized a federal income tax, after the Court had ruled that form of taxation unconstitutional. Adopted after a five-year ratification struggle on February 25, 1913, it was a major goal of the era’s Progressive movement. Until then, federal revenue depended largely on tariffs, or import taxes, which axiomatically raised the prices of goods and protected the era’s Robber Barons from international competition.

The graduated income tax pushed by Progressives had the advantage of not only reducing prices, but especially of taxing the rich at a higher rate than the poor. Indeed, for decades, even middle-class people did not pay income taxes. The firm idea behind the tax was that those who benefited most from national blessings also should pay the most. In research on World War II, I found several examples of people who were proud that they finally were earning enough to pay an annual income tax.

The 17th Amendment is even more important, as it allowed us citizens to elect our US senators. Yes, until its adoption on May 16, 1913, we did not vote for Bill Nelson or Marco Rubio or anyone else who represented us in the US Senate. Just a century ago, it was state legislators who elected them. If you think of Tallahassee insider-fighting today, just imagine what it would have been when dozens of men were jockeying for this top prize!

So to those who say this is the worst of times, I say: read history.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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