At a dinner party in Manhattan toward the end of November—in the midst of the #MeToo whirlwind—I found myself in the company of right-thinking left-wingers, all of them strongly supportive of the women who have been victims of sexual harassment.
Given the progressive character of the gathering, I thought it presented a good opportunity to bring up some concrete ideas about improving the condition of women, over and above the daily denunciations of this or that villain in this or that enterprise. Having witnessed the anger that had led to the removal of several Confederate monuments erected to the glory of racism and the defense of slavery, I proposed what was perhaps an audacious theory: with all this dismantling of icons—marble-and-iron icons on public squares in Virginia and Louisiana, flesh-and-blood icons in luxurious offices in Hollywood and New York—did we not risk overlooking some real social problems that damage the status of women in the workplace and contribute to the most egregious inequalities in the business world?
Why not, I went on, mount a direct attack on economic discrimination and revive the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment, a noble effort of the last century to establish equality between women and men in the area of wages, employment, and promotions? The ERA, which would have amended the United States Constitution to forbid discrimination on the basis of sex, was clear and reasonable and nearly won adoption. The project failed largely because of the fierce opposition of Phyllis Schlafly, a “conservative” activist who saw in the ERA the eventual weakening of the male’s primordial obligation, dictated by biology, to support mothers and their children. Moreover, she had no desire to see her two daughters (on this point, I was not in disagreement with her) called to military service in the Vietnam War. The amendment was ratified by thirty-five state legislatures, but changing the Constitution requires ratification by three-quarters (that is, thirty-eight) of the states; when the deadline for such legislative action passed in 1982, none of the required three additional states had ratified the measure and some of the states that had initially ratified the amendment had deratified. The amendment was not adopted.
Passage of the ERA would have legally required equality of opportunity and remuneration for members of both sexes, but I also had a notion that it would have compelled an office executive to hesitate before intimidating a female colleague if he knew she could be paid as much or even more than he was. The power not only of the law but also of money would create a certain psychological and social dam in defense of women, I suggested.
Whereupon my neighbor across the table, an experienced civil rights attorney, replied drily that the ERA wasn’t worth the trouble, because the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1868 to protect former slaves against discrimination, is quite sufficient protection for women too. I answered that the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees “equal protection” to “any person” who is a United States citizen, has obviously not been sufficient for women, who still earn, on average, less pay than men—studies on how much less vary—for equal work. The same goes for women competing with men at the highest levels of civil society and the business world, where men remain numerically predominant and distinctly wealthier. Let’s not forget that in 1868, women were not entirely “persons,” given that they had neither the right to vote nor the right to obtain a divorce without excessive difficulty.
The women around the table didn’t applaud my suggestion either. They were more interested in direct action. (One of them revealed how she’d been able to get her university salary raised by threatening to go to court.) And after the Weinstein scandal burst into the news, there wasn’t a single important politician who would take up the cause of the ERA. Admittedly, the legislative task would be much more difficult than the outing of sexual offenders on social media.
Would it be more worthwhile, perhaps, to look to literature, rather than to the law, to address the injustices committed against women? La Tresse (“The Braid”), the first novel of French director, actress, and writer Laetitia Colombani, might provide an excellent place to start. The author portrays three women of radically different cultures and classes: an Indian Untouchable who earns her living by collecting human excrement; a prominent Montreal attorney, a divorced mother, who falls gravely ill; and a young Sicilian employed in her father’s small factory when a sudden accident leaves him in a coma. Each of the three is afflicted by the inescapable rules of her society.
Smita, the Indian woman, is the most daring: she dreams of helping her daughter break free of their miserable existence by sending her to school. In a society that validates rape as a method of social control, Smita’s husband is exceptional; compared with the other men of his village, he’s practically a feminist. In any case, it’s Smita who can’t sleep peacefully, not her husband, who during the night “is a lake whose surface no ripple disturbs.” Smita sees that “men aren’t equal in sleep… Men aren’t equal in anything.” Destroying a few celebrities is maybe not the most enduring way to disturb the nocturnal rhythm of men and wake them up.