Mary Whitmore, who worked for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and ’80s, holds a sign to demonstrate her support of a new push for the ERA last weekend in Coupeville. The amendment fell short of ratification, by three states, before a 1982 deadline. Whitmore is heading a new Island County Democrats ERA committee. (Courtesy Mary Whitmore)

Whidbey Island woman continues battle for Equal Rights Amendment

Forty years ago, Mary Whitmore was a single mom with a 6-year-old. It was 1977 when she showed up at the Washington State Conference for Women in Ellensburg. There, she became a warrior for the Equal Rights Amendment.

The fight to enshrine gender equality in the U.S. Constitution was fiery, but 35 years ago its flames nearly died. When time ran out on a deadline set by Congress — June 30, 1982 — just 35 of the needed 38 states had ratified the amendment. Washington ratified the ERA in 1973.

For Whitmore and others, the battle never ended. On Sunday, the 69-year-old Whidbey Island woman was posted at the corner of Highway 20 and Main Street in Coupeville. She held up a green sign with a message for passersby: “ERA: 503-327-9623.”

That phone number is Whitmore’s newly established ERA action line. Callers hear lobbying tips, including how to call the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to express support for Senate Joint Resolution 6. That proposed legislation is a renewed push to amend the Constitution regarding equal rights for men and women. After the constitutional amendment process, it would require ratification by three-fourths of the states.

These are the words it would add to the Constitution:

“Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

“Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

“Section 3. This article shall take effect 2 years after the date of ratification.”

“What’s not to like?” said Whitmore, head of a new ERA committee of the Island County Democrats.

A second proposal, Senate Joint Resolution 5, has the same aim but with a different game plan. Called a “three-state strategy,” it would remove time limits for states to ratify the amendment.

“The heavy lifting’s been done,” said Whitmore, whose zeal for the ERA dates to the 1970s. Living in Seattle then, she operated an ERA action line like the one recently established.

After waking up to the issue at the 1977 conference in Ellensburg, Whitmore traveled the country with other ERA supporters. “I lived in Virginia for a year of lobbying,” she said.

She was part of a group of women who chained themselves to a doorway at the Illinois State Senate. In Washington, D.C., they scaled a White House fence in an attempt to deliver an ERA petition to President Ronald Reagan. “I had a button collection, 250 ERA buttons,” said Whitmore, who taught English for 15 years in Forest Grove, Oregon.

She was inspired to take up the cause again after participating Jan. 21 in the Women’s March on Seattle, which drew more than 100,000 people.

Like marches in Washington, D.C., and around the nation and world, it was a massive show of support for women and the rights of the LGBT community, people of color and immigrants. Marchers also raised a united voice against the rhetoric and policies of President Donald Trump, who was inaugurated Jan. 20.

“We owe it to Mr. T,” Whitmore said of Trump. “That’s what woke me up.”

During the Seattle march, Whitmore saw a woman with an ERA sign. “I said to myself, ‘You know what? We can do this,’” she said.

Whitmore thinks the ERA can be a bipartisan issue, and that pay equity for women and reproductive issues are as important now as they were in the 1970s. She remembers arguments the late Phyllis Schafley and others made against the Equal Rights Amendment, but believes social change has made them moot.

Schafley, who died last year at 92, called her effort Stop ERA. According to The New York Times, “stop” was an acronym for “stop taking our privileges.” Schafley and other foes, including some church groups, feared the ERA would bar rules exempting women from combat or guaranteeing alimony.

“In 35 years our society has changed a lot,” Whitmore said. “Women are in nearly every level of military service, and serve with pride and achievement.”

Today marks the birthday of Susan B. Anthony, born Feb. 15, 1820. She dedicated her life to women’s rights, but died before the 19th Amendment granted women the vote.

Whitmore said her effort feels like a return to the 1970s. “I go into my kitchen and I’m surprised it’s not harvest gold,” she quipped. But if an ERA renaissance gains steam, the 28th Amendment could be signed on the centennial of the signing of the 19th Amendment — Aug. 26, 2020.

“We call it our 2020 Vision,” Whitmore said. “Mr. T is going to get the credit and I don’t care. Just do it.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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