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Equal Rights Amendment Remarks at a White House Briefing

May 15, 1980

Twenty years ago it would not have been possible to get this many business leaders, men and women, to play an active role in passing a constitutional amendment to give women equal rights in this country. Two years ago it would not have been possible. And I hope that 2 years in the future it will not be necessary; that we'll not only be celebrating a tremendous victory for women in this Nation but also celebrating a victory for our country.

It will be a bright day when no longer do we have to expend our energy and our organizational talent, our political and personal influence, to bring about justice for women in a nation founded on the principle of equality and justice, but that we'll be benefiting from the tremendous new spirit and energy and talent released by women, who will be enjoying for the first time the kind of opportunities from which they have been excluded in the past.

In the midst of all of the rhetoric and distortions that are put forward by the opponents of ERA, it's important to realize that 35 States have already expressed their determination to have equality of treatment for women in this country. The Congress has voted repeatedly that this change in the Constitution should be made, and of course an overwhelming majority of American people, in every public opinion poll conducted, say that discrimination against women should be ended and the equal rights amendment should be passed.

It's almost unbelievable, were we not witnessing it ourselves, the deliberate attempts to distort a simple proposition. Those attempts have been remarkably successful. And when you realize once again that the equal rights amendment calls for this simple language to be added to the U.S. Constitution, it's almost startling: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex"—a simple proposition.

When you hear all the arguments and all the fears aroused and all the rhetoric and all the concerns expressed, you wonder whether the critics of ERA have even read the recommended amendment. The past six men who have lived in this house and served as President have all recognized publicly and consistently the need for the equal rights amendment. Both the Democratic and Republican Party platforms in 1976 endorsed the equal rights amendment.

Equal rights is more than just equality of pay; it's an opportunity to receive an equal education, equal training, equal job opportunities, equal treatment under the law, equal access to the kind of realization of the use of talent which God has given us all, and a sense among men and women that the time for official, legally condoned discrimination has been eliminated in our country. This kind of continued discrimination is a source of embarrassment and a legitimate source of shame for those who are responsible for the Nation's affairs. It's almost unbelievable that the ERA has not yet been ratified.

As Commander in Chief of our Armed Forces, I have seen at firsthand the tremendous benefit derived in all the military forces from the service of women. This is not a supreme test, but a very significant test, of the quality of women who serve as mechanics and pilots and radio operators. They serve, as a matter of fact, in 92 percent of all the military billets available in the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force. It's a stunning figure, but it should come as no surprise because we have found—again, somewhat to chauvinistic men's embarrassment-that women in the all-voluntary force are both better educated and more productive than the men volunteers.

Another area that we are pursuing in the Government is to provide some alleviation of discrimination that has existed in the past with businesses which are owned and operated by women. We had a White House conference to delineate what I might do as President, through Executive order, and what Congress might do through changes in the law, to provide for the first time equality of treatment in the awarding, for instance, of procurement in women's businesses.

We set a goal that we thought was very forthcoming and very courageous for 1979. And we not only exceeded that goal in 1979, but we also exceeded in 1979 the goal for 1980. So now we have been surprised at the aggression that the women business leaders have shown in competing for procurement contracts, but also the high quality of their businesses in meeting the high standards for procurement that we did not anticipate. And today I'm setting a new goal for this fiscal year of $212 million, and for '81 of $400 million in procurement, just in women's organizations.

There are some long-range sociological facts that we must recognize. In the future we will need women leaders, women employees, in a more rapidly changing, highly technological society. It's not only fair, but it's essential. As a matter of fact, fewer and fewer men in the next few years will be entering the labor force. By 1995, based on presently known birth rate projections, the number of males from 15 to 29 years old will have dropped from 30 million now down to 25 million. To find workers, industry will be forced to turn to women, and we simply must break down the present barriers that prevent women, on an equal basis, from getting the training and the education and the employment opportunities that they deserve.

The women will not be the only ones to suffer. American business will suffer, the American economy will suffer, and our Nation itself will suffer from the deprivation of women of their rights. At this time women comprise 43 percent of the Nation's workforce. Almost one-fourth of all the households in the United States are headed by women. In spite of discrimination, these figures show how women have been able to overcome obstacles and assume a major role in the American societal structure.

But in some States the laws are pitifully antiquated, inadequate, inequitable, and unprofitable for the people who live in those particular States. A woman's rights in connection with property, employment, education, the law, government benefits can vary depending on what State she happens to live in.

Most Americans believe, if you ask them, that women ought to be treated equally. But now is not the time just to talk about it. Action is required.

I'm the father of a little girl, and I'm the grandfather of a little girl. And I want them to have the same kind of opportunities that my sons and my grandsons have.

If I felt that my wife, Rosalynn, or my daughter, Amy, or my granddaughter, Sarah, were cheated, I would be willing to fight to protect their interest. But, as President, I know that many wives and daughters and granddaughters are cheated now. That's why I consider it necessary for me to take time, as President, to try to talk personally to members of the Illinois Legislature and to Democratic and Republican leaders, including the Governor, to try to induce that key State to be the next one to ratify the equal rights amendment.

There is not a single person in this room, whether you're from Georgia or California or Maine or live here in the District of Columbia, who can't add your own voice effectively to the decision that will be made very shortly in Illinois. You have friends in Illinois, influence in Illinois, and we only need one or two or three votes to carry the successful effort to a conclusion in the house of representatives and then in the senate. And I hope that in the next few days you will concentrate your effort, even in a sacrificial way, and make 15 or 20 or 30 or 40 telephone calls into Illinois if you have a particular friend who knows someone or is in the legislature to let your influence be felt.

The main obstacle to the ratification of the ERA in Illinois and in Georgia and in the other States that have not yet made this decision is the allegation that it is only supported by radical kinds of people. And the question of homosexuality and the question of abortion and religious beliefs and the sharing of restrooms and the destruction of families—these artificial arguments are put forward, .and they can best be knocked down by a person who's known to be sound and committed and balanced and patriotic, with a stable family and a good job. Those are the kinds of people who must speak out. And the religious leaders in Illinois, and the mothers in Illinois, and the labor leaders in Illinois, and the business leaders in Illinois and in all those States are the ones that can knock down these false allegations that influence adversely some of the members of the State legislatures in the nonratified States.

And if the president of a major corporation simply calls a member of the Georgia or the Illinois Legislature and says, "I speak to you as a businessman interested in the future of my country, and I ask you to help us ratify the equal rights amendment for the benefit of all," it will have a major impact if you've never seen that person and they've never heard of you, but perhaps heard of your company.

So, in addition to financial contributions and organizational efforts, I hope that you will add your voice to the influence of all the rest of us in getting ERA ratified, first in Illinois and then in two more States. This is a major, immediate test, and I hope that if you don't get any other message in coming to the White House, that you will take that personal request from me to help us have a successful effort in Illinois within the next few days.

In closing, let me say this: Since our Nation was founded, we have been courageous in self-analysis and self-criticism. If you examine the picture of the United States that was in the mind of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, it was not nearly so good a picture as we see now black people were slaves, discrimination was acknowledged and condoned, Americans could not vote for their own United States Senator directly, women could not vote. And laboriously and with the expenditure of a great deal of courage, we've made incremental progress.

In my judgment, the last remaining official element of discrimination imbedded in the American law is against women. And I hope that we can be successful in removing this deprivation of rights, which is presently still condoned in U.S. law, and guarantee under the Constitution that equality will indeed come to our country finally, once and for all. It will not only benefit women, but it will benefit every person who now lives or will live in our great country.

And I feel a partnership with you. I'll do my part and then some, and I'm asking you to do your part and a little bit more. Together we won't fail.

Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 2:21 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. The briefing was attended by leaders of business and women's organizations.

Jimmy Carter, Equal Rights Amendment Remarks at a White House Briefing Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/250353

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