LaVonne Hirashima had two children by the time she was 20 and no time to get a college degree. Instead, the single parent doubled down at work and built a stable career in information technology, and now works for a government contractor.
Still, Hirashima, 48, said she lost out on promotions and pay raises because she’s not part of the boys club in the male-dominated IT world. Those experiences shape her deep support for the Equal Rights Amendment, the change to the U.S. Constitution proposed five decades ago to ban discrimination on the basis of sex.
“I can express an idea or make suggestions, but it’s still not taken [seriously],” said Hirashima, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who is now married with three sons. “As more women come into management I think it will change, but it’s hard. It’s hard to change that culture.”
A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows that roughly 3 in 4 Americans support the gender equality amendment, which is now back before Congress following Virginia's ratification of the measure in January.
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But nearly the same amount, 72%, incorrectly believe the Constitution now guarantees men and women equal rights under the law.
“Wow, that's amazing,” said Demetria Fraley, a 33-year-old mother of six in Raleigh, North Carolina, when told there is no such explicit constitutional guarantee. “I never knew that. ... I'm thinking, things are changing, but apparently they're not."
The ERA, which would stipulate that equal rights cannot be denied or curtailed on the basis of gender, is back in the headlines because Virginia became the 38th state to ratify it — satisfying the requirement that three-quarters of states approve it following Congress' passage of the measure in 1972.
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However, legal hurdles could yet keep the ERA from becoming the 28th amendment. Congress initially required the states ratify it by 1977, a deadline they later extended to 1982. Some women's groups argue that deadline should not be seen as binding, and while the Democrat-controlled House will likely extend the deadline again, the Republican-controlled Senate may balk. Another legal obstacle: a move by five states in the 1970s to rescind their initial ratification of the amendment.
The ERA also faces bitter opposition from conservative activists who see it as endangering their stances on abortion and transgender rights. However, while the poll did find a significant partisan gap in views of the ERA's adoption, majorities across party lines are in support. Nearly 9 in 10 Democrats, compared with about 6 in 10 Republicans, say they are in favor.
Frances Wiener, 70, said she was very involved with the ERA campaign when it first started out. “I still have my bracelet, one of those metal bracelets that says ‘ERA,’” said Wiener, of Brooklyn, New York, who pursued a science career after graduating from college 50 years ago, working in hospital laboratories, and chose not to have a family.
She believes women face less discrimination now than they did then, a view shared by about 7 in 10 Americans, according to the poll. That compares with about 2 in 10 who think things are the same and roughly 1 in 10 who feel women face more discrimination today.
Still, Wiener hopes the ERA is finally adopted.
“Sometimes, when things are really written in stone, it makes people think a little bit harder about doing certain things. It gives it more teeth,” she said.
The poll shows nearly half of Americans, 46%, share Hirashima’s view that women have a tougher time getting high-paying jobs. Among those who disagree is Gerald Havens, of Springfield, Missouri, who called the ERA “an outdated amendment.” The 56-year-old retired postal service employee believes the women in his family — including his wife, a daughter in banking, and his sister and niece — have earned the same as men in their fields.
“I think society has moved on from when it was introduced in the 1970s,” said Havens, a Republican.
About half of Americans think ratifying the ERA would have a positive impact on the country, though about 4 in 10 feel it wouldn't make much of a difference and about 1 in 10 say it would be harmful. Nearly two-thirds think its impact on women would be positive; about 2 in 10 feel it would negatively affect men.
Even if added to the Constitution, the ERA would not on its own bar workplace discrimination. Still, the poll found that women are more likely than men to think the impact on the country — and on them personally — will be positive.
“We'd feel more equal," said Fraley, a Democrat, who said she has experienced employment discrimination in the construction field. “Some men just think that women can't do what (we know) they can do. So if a woman goes and does their job, it's like you're messing with their ego.”
In terms of careers in politics, nearly 4 in 10 said they think women have fewer opportunities than men, while about as many say it’s a level playing field. About a quarter think women today have more political opportunities.
“I think if a lot of women and minority women got out there and voted, we could have a woman president. Who would have thought Barack Obama would be elected president?” said Kathleen Wolfe, 73, of York, Pennsylvania, whose work for the Mattel Co. included interviewing consumers about the company’s iconic Barbie dolls, the subject of frequent feminist attacks – and some praise — over the years.
Hirashima, a moderate Democrat, thought that for sure Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential election. Then she heard someone on TV say he would never vote for a woman — and sensed the race was over.
“Other countries have a female leader and are successful,” she said. “I don’t see why we can’t be that forward thinking, but I don’t think our country as a whole is ready for that.”
The AP-NORC poll of 1,353 adults was conducted Jan. 16-21 using a sample drawn from NORC's probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.6 percentage points. Respondents were first selected randomly using address-based sampling methods and later were interviewed online or by phone.