Maine has a chance to do what the United States as a nation has failed to do: include women as fully equal citizens in the eyes of the law. Except for the United States, nearly every developed nation has a constitution that has a provision to protect women and men from discrimination based on their sex. In the absence of having rights for women protected in the U.S. Constitution, about half the states have those legal rights for women specified in their state constitutions. Maine is not one of them.
This month, Maine’s legislators are deciding whether discrimination based on a person’s sex deserves the same legal scrutiny as discrimination based on race or religion. Protection against sex discrimination offers guidance in cases of sexual harassment and sexual violence and affects equal pay for equal work, equal opportunity in the workplace and education and access to complete health care.
In the first round of voting in the Maine House, the vote fell along party lines. Every Democrat voted in favor of LD 433 and every Republican opposed it. It passed, but it will not get a two-thirds majority in the next vote without two independents and a handful of Republicans voting in favor of legal equality for women. How did this basic civil right —freedom from sex-based discrimination — become a partisan fight? Why would every Republican in the Legislature oppose these words: “Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine to Explicitly Prohibit Discrimination Based on the Sex of an Individual”?
One reason given by those opposing is that protection against sex discrimination is not necessary — the women they know seem perfectly fine without it. Well, good. Women who are perfectly fine are fortunate, indeed. But that is not the issue. Legal equality is a fundamental value of democracy, a fundamental principle that is important to people who are not perfectly fine.
Another reason given by those who spoke against L.D. 433 was that giving women legal equality would somehow lead to more abortions. Let’s think about that. Abortion is legal because the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that it fell within the right to privacy: that citizens should be free to make intimate health decisions in private, without government interference. Legal equality for women has never been a basis for legal abortions.
Doesn’t Maine have laws about sex discrimination? Yes, and those laws look good as originally written, but they can be altered or repealed and are difficult to enforce for one important reason: Laws that do not have a firm constitutional foundation are vulnerable to being weakened or ignored. Nowhere in the Maine Constitution, or the U.S. Constitution, is sex discrimination mentioned. That is why the current proposal before the Maine Legislature, to clearly prohibit sex discrimination, is so important.
Maine’s Constitution was written in 1820, when women were considered to be under the protection of men and not extended legal rights of their own. The lofty language of equality pertained to men, specifically white men. It would be another 100 years before women could vote.
What about the U.S. Constitution? Maine ratified the proposed federal Equal Rights Amendment in 1974, yet Mainers have waited 45 years for the protections it would give, and we still don’t have them.
The federal amendment was never fully ratified by three-quarters of the states. There is a growing movement to revive the federal ERA, which became dormant in 1982. Maine should be proud that all members of its congressional delegation — Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden — support the federal ERA and are co-sponsoring bills that seek to revive it. However, in the absence of federal protection against sex discrimination, it is even more important that women and men in Maine be protected under our state Constitution by an equal rights amendment. That is what LD 433 would do.
Once a proposed state constitutional amendment receives two-thirds votes in the Senate and House, it will come to all of us, in a statewide referendum. Every Republican legislator should think hard about passing this question to the voters. The people of Maine should decide this matter.
Nancy Murdock is co-founder of Equal Rights Maine and a resident of Brooklin.