WASHINGTON—For Sen. Claire McCaskill, equality for women is "just like motherhood and apple pie," but the Missouri Democrat is none too eager to change the Constitution to guarantee it.
So as Congress prepares for hearings on a revived Equal Rights Amendment, McCaskill is on the sidelines, much to the disappointment of some of her feminist backers.
"The ERA—just because of the history of it, just in and of itself—is an incredibly divisive thing, and sometimes I'm not sure that the divisiveness is worth it," McCaskill said in an interview in her Capitol Hill office.
Stacey Newman, executive director of the Missouri Women's Coalition, said it's "fabulous" the Democratic-led Congress is promoting the cause once again, and she's hoping McCaskill gets on board.
"We consider it a civil rights issue," Newman said. "You know, women need to be on the same plane as men, and it needs to be spelled out. ... Sometimes you have to step up and do the fight. It is worth it."
When Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., introduced the legislation in late March, he called for "a bolder effort" to guarantee full equality between the sexes. Other top-ranked Senate Democrats quickly jumped on as co-sponsors, including 2008 presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois and the party's 2004 presidential nominee, John Kerry of Massachusetts.
So far, McCaskill has not joined the effort, and she's undecided if she will. Of the 11 Democratic women in the Senate, she's one of four who's not co-sponsoring the bill, along with Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. And none of the five Republican women in the Senate are behind the legislation, either. The bill has 23 co-sponsors.
"It's not that I'm against it," McCaskill said. "It's not that I don't support the concept, but frankly we've all seen how amending the Constitution doesn't necessarily get America there. You know, we did a lot of changes to embrace African Americans in this country, and clearly putting it into law doesn't make it happen. And sometimes I think we put the energy into making the laws and not enough energy into changing the social dynamic that brings about equality."
Missouri is one of 15 states that declined to ratify the ERA, which was first introduced in Congress in 1923. In 1972, it passed Congress by the necessary two-thirds vote and was sent to state legislatures. The amendment had to be approved by 38 states but fell three short.
While the amendment is routinely introduced in Congress, this is the first time in more than 20 years that it will receive a hearing. And Democratic proponents are promising votes in both the House and Senate by the end of the year.
In his bill, Kennedy has renamed the ERA the "Women's Equality Amendment." It says that "equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."
Backers say the language is important because courts would give claims of gender discrimination the same scrutiny as claims of racial discrimination.
As they did in the 1970s, opponents are warning that passage of the amendment would lead to gay marriage, publicly funded abortions and unisex bathrooms.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York who has introduced a companion amendment in the House, said equality for women "has for too long been a dream deferred." She said women are underrepresented in business and government, earn less than men and are nearly twice as poor in old age. Her bill has attracted 193 co-sponsors.
"It is time to stop stalling and finish what we started 84 years ago," Maloney said. "We are tired of excuses: Women and girls in the United States deserve every opportunity that men have always had."
Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, said the amendment was a bad idea in the 1970s and "an even worse idea now," noting that workplace protections for women have already been added to federal laws.
The group, which seeks to bring biblical principles into public policy, warned that the amendment could lead to the legalization of prostitution and the removal of words such as "manmade" from federal laws and regulations, among other things.