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Adams: Honor foremothers by passing ERA

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., right, speaks on Capitol

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., right, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 22, 2011, where she announced the re-introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) Photo Credit: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Janus Adams is the author of "Sister Days: 365 Inspired Moments in African American Women's History."


As we celebrate our Declaration of Independence this holiday weekend, a triumph of history, let's pause to consider our herstory.

Against the backdrop of the Supreme Court's recent dismissal of the petition of up to 1.6 million women for redress against the king of retailers -- that is, the class-action sex discrimination suit against Walmart -- we ask: What of the rights of women?

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan) is leading the congressional Democratic response to the ruling by resuscitating arguments for passing the Equal Rights Amendment. Four decades since Congress passed this constitutional amendment -- and three decades since its defeat, three states shy of the 38 needed to ratify it within 10 years -- it's time to declare what history has left unsaid: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

In March of 1776, Abigail Adams chided her husband John to "remember the Ladies." Regardless, women were wholly unrecognized in the Declaration of Independence and, later, the Constitution. And 72 years later -- 163 years ago this month -- America's first women's rights convention took place at Seneca Falls, N.Y. Organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, it drew 300 delegates.

The Seneca Falls convention sprang from an overlooked root: The Female Anti-Slavery Society. Begun by black women in 1832, the society was America's first woman-led secular assembly.

Building on their mutual aid societies and literary clubs, the women of the Female Anti-Slavery Society dared to break new ground: "We, the undersigned, females of color, of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, being duly convinced of the importance of union and morality, have associated ourselves together for our mutual improvement."

With their union, black women powered Underground Railroad routes, defying the freedom of some to enslave others.

By 1838, the Female Anti-Slavery Society was joined by white abolitionist women. So opposed were pro-slavers, that rioters -- emboldened by the blind eye of the police -- torched the Pennsylvania Hall convention site and stoned the fleeing women.

The male Pennsylvania Abolition Society demanded the women end their anti-racist stance. The American Anti-Slavery Society, founded later that year with Lucretia Mott's husband, James, among its leaders, excluded women. And it was iffy on black men.

So Mott launched the National Female Anti-Slavery Society. Tellingly, even today, "American" often indicates white male-dominated institutions and "national" their race- or gender-inclusive counterparts (think of the American Bar Association and the National Bar Association, formed when blacks were excluded).

At the World's Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, women were shut out and shut up; seated behind a partition and barred from speaking. But it was there that Mott and Stanton met. And from the London affront the two forged the Women's Rights Convention of 1848. Their agenda: voting, property rights, education and divorce.

The platform, "A Declaration of Sentiments," exposed "a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman." But they still left the convention at Seneca Falls rightsless.

Here, in 2011, we are far from 1848 -- but not far enough. As the Supreme Court's Walmart ruling shows, the teeter-totter on women's rights teeters on. Even as we celebrate our nation's founding, our founding contradiction is a legacy we can ill afford. Maloney is right: The time has come to pass the ERA.