My Journey as an ERA Warrior
by Shari Temple
I’ve always been a strong supporter of women but never an activist. I’m writing this on February 4th, 2020 – the 120th birthday of my maternal grandmother. Both she and my mother always instilled in me that women can do anything. That’s something I believe to this day.
My first real experience of prejudice against women occurred was when I was on the debate team in high school. I had an amazing female debate partner. We made it to the finals and were debating a team of two guys. We clobbered them. They came up afterwards and congratulated us on beating them so bad. But then the judges announced the male team had won. When we read their feedback, it was clear that we lost because we were an all-female team. The “winners” even came up and apologized for the bad decision. Our debate coach then broke us up and matched us each with a male partner. After that, both teams were winning. However, it was SO unfair. Betty and I were a great team.
I spent my career in Information Technology and moved into a management role when I was 29. I was often the only woman in the room at many meetings. I learned how to put that to my advantage. Luckily, I seldom felt the pervasive discrimination that many women have experienced. However, I have definitely observed it. And of course, I did personally experience it at times. There was probably more than I realized but I just brushed it off. I had a sign in my office “Women must work twice as hard to be thought half as good. Luckily it is easy.” I had to take it down once the company implemented a sexual harassment policy.
I was in college when the Equal Rights Amendment was passed by the US House and Senate and sent to the states for ratification to be added as a new amendment to the US Constitution. Although I was aware of the ERA activities and definitely knew about the “anti-feminist” Phyllis Schlafly, I did not get involved. I just watched it all from the sidelines.
Now fast-forward to 2017. I had just retired and was thinking about what I wanted to do in the next phase of my life and where I could make a difference.
I remembered that our Global Women’s Caucus chair Christine Moritz had been talking in 2015 about how the GWC should champion work on the Equal Rights Amendment. It was the first time I’d heard discussion about it in decades. She mentioned it again in 2016 and I put the book “Equal Means Equal” by Jessica Neuwirth on my Christmas wish list. Although it was really dry reading, I found the book very informative and finished reading it in January 2017.
So, as I was thinking in September or October about where I wanted to channel my energy, I thought back on that book. But the other area I was thinking about was hunger relief. I had spent that last dozen years of my career working with software for humanitarian aid and thus with a lot of hunger relief and food banking organizations. In connection with my work, I had spent a lot of time not only in Africa but also with groups in developed countries. I had seen so many cases where women had been the ones who made a difference as to whether or not there was food on the table.
I finally decided that helping the US get equal rights for women in our constitution would set a positive role model for other countries. And personally, I also wanted my granddaughter Lucinda to have her rights as a woman guaranteed. Women are equal to men and should have equal rights!
So how could I help the ERA get ratified? I realized that leveraging help from Democrats Abroad would give me my greatest opportunity. I discussed the idea with the Global Women’s Caucus steering team and was met with a lukewarm reception. (This would change over time as I shared what I was learning with them.) I decided to do it on my own.
I then discussed the idea with Quaide Williams, and he loved it. We agreed to co-sponsor a resolution to be submitted to DA’s global leaders. I started doing more research on ERA. I was pleased to learn there was a lot of activity going on in the US. Nevada had even passed the ERA that year in March becoming the 36th of the 38 states needed for ratification. We had the first draft of the ERA resolution ready by Nov 7.
In January, the EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa) Region of DA had a meeting in Madrid. I put together a poster about ERA to display at the meeting. I also finagled a way to get a few minutes on the agenda to promote the ERA resolution to all the leaders there.
DA’s global leadership meeting was held in May in Tokyo. Quaide and I had both been promoting our resolution and soliciting support. We were both elated when it passed unanimously. It was clear that our leaders understood that women’s issues needed to be addressed. That same week, Illinois also ratified the ERA, becoming the 37th state. Just one more to go!
I became DA’s global ERA Project Coordinator. I put a plan together that summer with activities scheduled to start after the 2018 mid-terms. I continued doing work on my own but by September realized we probably needed to start soon.
By a stroke of luck, I got an email from DNC member Martha McDevitt Pugh, who had just met Natalie White from Equal Means Equal at the DNC meeting and introduced me to her. My first call with Natalie was great. She gave me an excellent overview of what was really happening with ERA - the opportunities and the obstacles. I shared this with the GWC steering team along with the idea to do a global webinar with them. Everyone agreed it was a good idea.
We were able to get Kamala Lopez, the president of Equal Means Equal, and Wendy Murphy, their legal counsel, to do a webinar for Democrats Abroad. Just as we were doing the final setup right before the call, I asked Kamala about her bio, so that I could introduce her. It was only then that I learned she was a Hollywood actress who was now an activist for the ERA. She and Wendy did a great job sharing with our DA members the reasons why the ERA was so important. This was in October 2018.
I, too, was understanding more and more why the ERA is so critical. Originally, I had valued it for its symbolism – to show that the US believes that women and all people are equal. Of course, I knew it was more than that, but now I was learning how much more. It will impact discriminatory laws and ensure that court decisions about women’s rights come under top scrutiny. I was reminded of one sex discrimination law in Oklahoma when I was growing up. The drinking age for girls was 18 and 21 for boys. So, guess who bought the beer when you went on dates. But the more serious issues relate to pay inequities, health care inequities, and domestic violence inequities. We need the ERA to make sure laws that help women are not later changed – like letting the Violence Against Women Act expire.
I realized that we could not wait until 2019 to start ERA actions; we needed to start asap. I began contacting every ERA group I could find in the US. The most welcoming response I got was from Kati Hornung, the head of VAratifyERA in Virginia. I made connections with groups in several of the 13 unratified states as well as some national organizations. I started following them on Facebook and even set up a Twitter account so I could follow them there.
I was successful in recruiting some help from several Democrats Abroad members to be ERA coordinators for the unratified states. I set up an ERA section on the DA website – www.democratsabroad.org/era.
My New Year’s Resolution for 2019 was to do whatever I could to help with the ratification of the ERA. I made my first of many social media posts promoting the ERA. I’m sure many of my FB friends are tired of reading about the ERA – but luckily most agree with me on its importance.
We set up several ERA campaigns where DA members could help. It made me happy every time I saw so many participating and helping – from making personal videos to signing petitions.
Our ERA team started tracking the progress of the ERA bills in the 13 unratified states.
I took on Virginia as ‘my’ state despite being from Oklahoma and Texas. We had someone else for Oklahoma, and Texas had ratified it in 1972. Virginia was also the state with the earliest session end date – the end of February. I hadn’t realized how short the state legislatives sessions were; they range from 8 weeks to just 4 months. Virginia has live streaming of all the sessions, even their committee sessions. I was learning who all the key characters were – the good guys and the bad guys – and here “guys” is gender neutral. I think the hardest was listening to the women who were against the ERA. I still cannot understand their way of thinking. The biggest fears ‒ women being drafted, abortion on demand, only single-sex bathrooms, women losing rights ‒ all seem so unreasonable to me – especially since 25 states already have an equal rights clause in their state constitution.
I tried to attend all of the VAratifyERA team calls – even when it meant getting up at 2AM to participate. They finally changed the time to accommodate my 6-hour earlier time zone. It was so interesting to hear what these grassroots organizations were doing along with the national organizations. They had organized bus tours to promote ERA in Virginia. They were meeting with the top government officials. They even got John Oliver to do a whole segment on ERA.
The VA Senate passed the ERA bill with bi-partisan support. When it got to the final vote in the Virginia House at the end of February, the result was 50-50; it needed at least 51 to pass. This was a good example of the importance of one vote. But a more important example happened in a special election in one Virginia district; the vote ended an absolute tie. They broke the tie by pulling a name out of the hat. Had they pulled the name of the Democratic candidate that day, instead of the Republican one, the ERA bill would have had the needed 51 votes. I cried along with all the ERA supporters in gallery – both men and women.
So now that Virginia was out of the running to be the 38th state, it was time to help some of the other states. There were bills in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, and South Carolina. One by one I watched ERA bill votes fail or, even worse, never be submitted to a vote before the 2019 session ended. Each time a session ended, I felt sad – but since it had already been 96 years since the amendment was first introduced and people were still fighting for the ERA, I knew that there was enough energy to keep going.
I remained in contact with Virginia. The team there decided to pivot. Rather than trying to change the minds of the anti-ERA delegates, they would work to change the delegates. All Virginia delegate seats in both the House and Senate were up for election in 2019. Although they did some work for pro-ERA candidates for the primary, their main emphasis was on the general election. DA helped with the get-out-the-vote effort by calling all our DA members who vote in Virginia to make sure they knew about the election and requested their ballot. It was pretty easy for us to help VAratifyERA with their pro-ERA candidates since they were ALL Democrats.
In mid-August, Virginia set up a postcard campaign to write to voters in the state and encourage them to vote for pro-ERA candidates. I committed DA to write 1000 postcards. When I worked with Quaide to get the postcards printed in Germany, I discovered it was better to order 2500 of them – which I did. I reached out to our members for help with the postcards. There was an overwhelming response to my request. When I got the first list of addresses from Kati at VAratifyERA, I was excited that we had addresses in Kirk Cox’s district. He was the jerk who, as Speaker of the House, tried to block the vote for ERA. I had seen him so many times at hearings that I was elated that we could help vote him out. We had so many people wanting to help that I got an additional 1000 addresses. I kept asking for more addresses until I had to order more postcards. In the end, DA sent 5000 postcards from 19 different countries. I personally mailed 500 of them from Angel Fire, New Mexico, in late September.
VAratifyERA loved DA. They had also used the videos we made earlier in the year to promote the fact that 85% of all countries in the world have equal rights in their country’s constitution – it was time for US to join that group.
When I woke up on November 6, I immediate logged onto my PC. The first thing I saw was that Virginia flipped both its House and Senate to blue – they now had Democratic control of both chambers plus the governorship. And some of the first press releases from the Virginia Democrats included ERA as one of their top priorities for 2020. I was literally jumping for joy as I saw the good news. It seemed pretty clear that Virginia would ratify the ERA, and we would finally have equal rights for women in the US.
During the holidays, I read that the district attorneys in Alabama, Louisiana, and South Dakota had filed a lawsuit against the US Archivist, forbidding him to log any ratification of the ERA from any state since there had been a 1982 deadline in the preamble of the amendment. I knew to expect some court cases and barriers but was disheartened to learn that they were already starting.
Right before the end of the year, I read that Equal Means Equal had filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts arguing that the ERA should be added immediately to the Constitution once 38 states had ratified it.
I ended the year thinking back on my 2019 New Year’s resolution and felt that, although the ERA process was not complete, I had done everything that I could think of to help.
I had decided over Christmas that my present to myself would be to fly to Virginia for the final vote. I finally got word that the vote would probably take place on January 20 – Martin Luther King Day – so I booked my flights and hotel. Two of our ERA team members, Katie Solon and Carol Moore, were in the US and also planned to be there. But – since this is the world of politics – I knew something could change, so I booked refundable tickets. Sure enough, I soon got word that Virginia was expecting major riots of up to 100,000 people (with guns!) on MLK Day in protest of the gun control laws that the Democrats planned to pass. The ERA vote would definitely not happen that day, and there was no new schedule. I was disappointed and unsure what to do about my flights.
The Virginia session started on January 8. The next day, the Senate Privileges and Elections (P&E) Committee passed the ERA bill SJ1 – the first step in the process. I was glued to my PC watching the live streaming. I was quite excited when it passed even though it had been clear beforehand that it would. Besides, the full Senate had passed it every session since 2011 except for one. It had never even made to a House floor vote.
On Saturday (January 11) there still was no schedule for the House committee vote. I now had a week before I was scheduled to fly there and knew I’d need to change the flight but didn’t know the new date. After lots of anguishing, I decided to just cancel the flight and rebook once I knew the date.
Then, on Monday (January 13), I got the news that the House P&E committee would vote on ERA bill HJ1 the next day. The odds were that it would pass, but then it needed to go to a floor vote. The Senate and House bills were identical so it would just take the Senate and then House passing SJ1 or the House and then Senate passing HJ1. Boy, have I learned a lot in the last year about how bills are processed along with the terminology! I never even knew the term ‘cross-over’ before – that’s when a bill crosses over from the chamber it has passed to the other chamber. Also, for the last year, I’ve been rattling off ERA bill numbers in all the states and at the national level.
When I woke up on Tuesday (January 14), I had an email from Kati at VAratifyERA telling me that it looked like the House and Senate floor votes would happen on Thursday and Friday – and that it was likely they would also do the cross-over vote the same day. The ERA would be fully ratified by Friday. I decided to hop on a plane the next day so I could be there in time for this historic moment. I let Katie and Carol know the new plan. Unfortunately, neither of them would be able to join me.
But then, about 3PM, I got a call from Kati. The Virginia Democrats were having a big post-election party on Wednesday night – the next day – and decided to do the votes on Wednesday. Both the House and Senate would have to pass their bills and then send them to the other chamber the same day for the final vote. I was crushed. My flight didn’t get in until 4:30 on Wednesday afternoon. I was also flying into DC so I still needed a couple of hours to get to Richmond. What to do? After looking at every travel site I could find, the only option I found would be to change my flight so I could be there at least earlier and meet all the great women who had worked on making this happen. And actually, that was my main reason to go – to meet and thank and hug all these women I had been working with for over 12 months.
After more than three frustrating hours in travel booking hell, I had new flights. I was in tears several times during this strenuous and potentially expensive process, but afterward it was time to watch the House P&E committee vote. In its long and frustrating legislative history, the ERA bill had never before gotten out of a Virginia House committee. But it did that day! More tears again as I watched the elation in the room from the women who I hoped to meet the next day. It was now almost 9PM and I hadn’t started packing – and I had to leave for the airport in less than 10 hours.
When I got up the next morning, I realized I didn’t have a place to stay. Luckily it was still Tuesday in Virginia and Kati responded to my email by giving me the name of the hotel where most of the out-of-town women were staying. I called the hotel and got a room.
My flight to DC was uneventful. As soon as we landed, I immediately turned on my phone to see what had happened in Virginia while I was on the plane. To my delight, I saw that the Virginia House had passed HJ1 and the Senate had passed SJ1. Based on the votes, I knew it had bi-partisan support. However, I couldn’t find anything about the cross-over vote. I texted Kati and learned that they were celebrating at the hotel where I was staying.
I hopped into the first taxi I saw. I didn’t want to waste even 5 minutes trying to manage to get an Uber. I think I got the slowest taxi driver in the world. I kept asking him to drive faster. Eventually I reached the hotel. It was now 4:30 PM – about the time I would have just landed if I hadn’t re-booked to an earlier flight. I walked into the hotel and was overwhelmed by the sea of smiling women. They filled the lobby and the restaurant/bar. Everywhere were ERA buttons and banners. I could see Kati being interviewed by some TV station. About that time, Carol Jenkins, the president of the ERA Coalition walked in the door. I introduced myself. We’d been on lots of calls together in the past year, so it was great to meet her in person. She started introducing me to a few other people. I was still in my travel clothes, my purple velour sweats, so I wanted to get into some fresh clothes. It took me less than 10 minutes to check in, change, put on some make-up, and get back downstairs. I wanted to be part of the celebration!
I’m not very good at mingling and introducing myself to people I don’t know. In fact, that’s probably one of the things I hate the most, being in a crowd of people I don’t know. However, there were so many faces I recognized from having watched them in hearings and being on video calls with them that I found it was pretty easy to approach them. Also, it was a happy and friendly group. I finally managed to meet Kati Hornung. She’s been my heroine with her grassroots group doing so many cool things, like the ice cream truck, to promote ERA, and I give her personal credit for the success in Virginia – even though I know how much work so many others have done. We hugged – and then hugged again. She tapped a glass and introduced me to everyone in the room as the woman from Munich who helped get Democrats Abroad to send 5000 postcards to Virginia voters. I received a warm welcome. Several people came up to me and thanked me for our help. It made me feel like I was part of this pro-women, ERA community. I also met Natalie White from Equal Means Equal, my first ERA contact back in the fall of 2018. She said Kamala Lopez had already gone to her room, but that we should all three get together the next morning.
I went to dinner with several of the VAratifyERA women. It was now after midnight Munich time, but I was wide awake. It was interesting to hear a bit of the behind-the-scenes scoop on some of the politicians and other ERA supporters. I also learned why the cross-over vote hadn’t happened that day. There was a technical screw-up; no one had made sure the language in the House Bill and Senate Bill were indeed exactly the same. That really was not an absolute requirement, but they wanted them to be the same - so the vote was delayed. At that point, no one knew when the vote might happen.
After dinner, we went to the Virginia Dems celebration party. Unfortunately, we got there too late for the short speech that included the announcement of the passage of the ERA bill in both the House and Senate. I thought the party was kind of a bust. It was crowded, hot, wine in plastic glasses, and unexciting appetizers – not what I had expected for my $50 ticket (and not up to DA party celebration standards!). I did meet a few interesting people. But overall, I was disappointed. So, I was happy when a group wanted to head back to the hotel bar where we were joined by more ERA advocates. I loved hearing their stories about their involvement with ERA. Some had been engaged in the effort for decades, and some hadn’t even been born when it was sent to the states for ratification in 1972. I was glad I had decided to fly there.
The next morning (Thursday) I got up early and went for a walk. I discovered I was just a few feet from the Capitol. There were already barricades and armed police getting ready for the expected influx of gun-carrying, pro-gun advocates for the Monday protest. On my walk, I suddenly realized “oh no – I was supposed to take pictures”. I had been so caught up in the moments and celebrations that I didn’t even think about photos. When I went to breakfast after my walk, there was no one in the restaurant. It was still early. The plan was to meet at the Capitol at 10:30 for the ERA sentinel – holding pro-ERA signs and greeting the delegates as they arrived. Before then, I needed to pack and check out. I went back down around 10 and now the restaurant was full of ERA people. I joined them as I waited for the time to go to the sentinel.
I was now seeing some new faces – others who had flown in the day before but did not get there in time for the vote. There were so many who had worked since the early 70’s on ERA. I felt like an imposter. I was about the same age and yet I had only started in late 2017. One of these amazing women was Zoe Nicholson. I think I was the only person who didn’t know who she was. Back in 1982, she was one of the seven women who went on a 37-day hunger strike trying to convince Illinois to ratify the ERA before the 1982 deadline. She was partially blind as a result of that strike. After introducing myself, she asked me to have a photo taken with her since I had travelled farther than anyone else.
And then, Natalie White and Kamala Lopez walked in. I was finally meeting Kamala in person. We had exchanged many emails since that webinar in 2018 and it was great to hug her. She asked if she could interview me, which I agreed to do. She asked me to go to her room around 11.
When I got to Kamala’s room, I was surprised to see two cameramen and a professional setup for recording the interview. Kamala is the president of Heroica Films in addition to her Executive Director role at Equal Means Equal. I knew that she was gathering footage to include in her sequel to her award-winning documentary Equal Means Equal. So - I might be a movie star! I suspect at least a couple of my answers will make the cut. She’s hoping to release the new documentary soon. She thinks it will help gain more public support for the ERA and keep the momentum going. I received an ERA hoodie from her as a thank you for the interview. She’s one of my other ERA heroines and the other key person I wanted to meet.
From there, I went to the Capitol. I joined a few others from VAratifyERA. I was even asked to stand when they were introduced to the House delegates. At the break, I met some of the women delegates who helped ensure that ERA was a priority, but none knew when the next vote would take place. As we left the Capitol, we ran into the chair of the House P&E Committee. He said he had the SJ1 vote scheduled for the next morning. He was unsure whether he would allow any speakers. Kati asked me if I’d be willing to testify. My return flight was scheduled for that evening but what an opportunity that would be! The only problem was, if I rescheduled, I would have had to stay 2 more nights since Lufthansa does not fly to Munich on Fridays for some unknown reason. Also, it was unclear if the House committee would have anyone testify, so I declined.
From the Capitol, we went for lunch and back to the hotel. I started saying my good-byes. This time I took an Uber back to the airport (about half the price as the taxi). I left the hotel almost exactly 24 hours after I had arrived. My flight home was also uneventful.
What an adventure! I had met all these great women who I had worked with, seen in hearings, and read about. I had been part of the celebration. I had been able to hug and thank women in person for their work. And I had met my two ERA heroines – Kati Hornung and Kamala Lopez.
I got home in time to watch the ERA vote in the House P&E committee. It was fun seeing all these women in the gallery with whom I had been just the day before. The chair decided to go directly to a vote without any testimony from either side. It passed with no problem. We were now one step closer to the final ratification. Also, the next votes were being scheduled. The Senate would have their P&E committee hearing on January 21 and the final vote was planned for Jan 27. On the 21st, I watched while the VA Senate committee easily passed the ERA.
On Monday, January 27, I had both the House and the Senate hearings running at the same time. I got so tired of them talking about various state bills and introducing every person and group in the gallery. But it was fun seeing the ERA groups introduced since I now knew the names of almost every face. Finally, finally, the Senate was ready to talk about HJ1. It passed! 27-12! I was more than excited. Then on my other screen, I heard someone come into the House to announce what had happened in the Senate. Soon after that, the House voted on SJ1. It passed! 58-40! THE ERA HAD BEEN RATIFIED!! I ran downstairs to tell my husband Manfred, who has been with me every step of the way, who has shared with me the ups and downs of this ERA saga, who has fixed dinners, run errands, and taken care of the minutia of life when I was glued to the computer. He was moved and as excited as I was that this was FINALLY happening. We cried happy tears. And then he opened a bottle of champagne.
Now what was going to happen? Would the Archivist do his job and log the ratification? Would women really be added to the Constitution?
Well, that answer came the next day. The US Archivist was a scaredy-cat, or should I say chicken-shit. He said he would abide by the opinion of the Justice Department until someone told him different.
Then the next day, the Attorney Generals of Virginia, Illinois, and Nevada jointly filed a lawsuit against the Archivist demanding he add the ERA to the Constitution.
ARRGHH – as of now, it seems to be at a standstill. The US House plans to vote on H.J.Res. 79 – the bill to make the ERA part of the US Constitution – next week. But even if they do, will Mitch McConnell put it to a vote on the Senate side? Several states are pushing to be the 39th state to ratify the ERA. However, it still looks this will end up in the Supreme Court for the final decision.
I’m still hopeful! And I know that there are ERA warriors like me who are not going to give up this battle until we win!
It’s NEVER too late to become an activist!
Fighting for Equality,
February 4, 2020
[Special acknowledgement - Thanks to Dona Geyer, my dear friend and fellow DA member, for editing my writing for me.]