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Servicewomen Show Why We Should Pass Equal Rights Amendment

From left to right: Opha May Johnson, Alice Paul, Dr. Mary Walker, CPT Kathleen McGrath, SSGT Leigh Ann Hester.

Deborah Sampson served in the Continental Army.

In May of 1781, she enlisted in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment by using the alias Robert Shurtleff.  

Wounded fighting the British during the Battle of Tarrytown, Sampson unsuccessfully used a pen knife to remove a musket ball from her thigh, where it remained for the rest of her life.

Later hospitalized with a fever, Dr. Barnabas Binney discovered that Shurtleff was Sampson. The doctor informed General John Patterson, Sampson’s commanding officer. Aware of her record, he ordered that she be honorably discharged in October, 1783.

Her military service played a small but important role in America achieving its independence, which eventually led to the writing of the United States Constitution.


An Equal Rights Amendment

In 1923 Alice Paul, founder of the National Women’s Party, introduced the first Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, to Congress.

It states that, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

This proposed amendment to the Constitution lay dormant until 1972 when Congress approved the ERA and sent it to the 50 states for ratification.

For the amendment to be added to the Constitution, it must first be ratified by three-fourths (or 38) of the state legislatures.


The Long Push to Ratify

Twenty-two states quickly ratified the change, but the pace significantly slowed after 1975. By 1982 just 35 states had voted for ratification.

One of the points anti-ERA proponents made was that it would send women into combat. But others had followed Sampson’s example.

  • During the Civil War, Dr. Mary Walker becomes the first and only woman to receive the Medal of Honor.
  • Opha May Johnson enlists as a Marine during World War I.
  • During World War II, thousands of women served – and 400 nurses died – in the line of duty. Four of these nurses – Lieutenants Mary Roberts, Elaine Roe, Virginia Rourke and Ellen Ainsworth – received the first Silver Stars.
  • Over 50,000 women serve at home and abroad during the Korean War; 500 Army nurses served in combat zones and many Navy nurses served on hospital ships.
  • During the War in Vietnam over 7,000 women served, mostly as nurses in all five branches of the military.  All were volunteers.
  • In 1976 the first women are admitted to the service academies.
  • During the Persian Gulf War, more that 41,000 women were deployed to the combat zone.
  • In 2000 Captain Kathleen McGrath became the first woman to command a warship.
  • Staff Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester became the fifth woman to receive the Silver Star for gallantry in 2005.

“Women’s roles in the armed forces have grown since they officially began serving more than 100 years ago during World War I,” pointed out Washington State Representative Christine Kilduff, in an email.

“The expansion of women’s military service has been continued and is highlighted by the Secretary of Defense’s [Leon Panetta] 2013 decision to allow women to serve in combat roles.


Closing In On the 28th Amendment

As the recent campaign for women’s rights in the areas of equal pay and freedom from sexual harassment in all areas of society has gained momentum, so too has the fight for ratification.

In March 2017, Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, and in May 2018, Illinois followed suit.

Of the thirteen states which have not ratified the ERA, only one more need do so for it to become the 28th Amendment to the Constitution. Arizona, Georgia, and Virginia are currently working toward ratification.

“It’s time for us to make history,” said Arizona State Representative Pam Powers Hannley in early January, ”because there is no time limit on equality.”

Sampson would agree.


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