In the year 2017, you would think that saying that women should have equal rights would be a fairly nonpartisan, uncontroversial statement.
Not in the Arizona legislature, apparently. For more than 50 years now, Arizona has failed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, stating that all citizens have equal rights regardless of their gender. And on Thursday, House Republicans chose to take a lunch break rather than debate the Democrat-backed bill, which means that it's effectively dead.
Here's what happened:
Back in 1972, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment. But it didn't get written into law, because a majority of states refused to ratify it. Arizona was one of them.
In the past 50-plus years, there have been countless attempts to try and get the state legislature to reverse that position. This year, Representative Pamela Powers Hannley, a Democrat from Tuscon, introduced the bill at the start of the legislative session in January. House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, who is a man, assigned it to the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, chaired by Rep. Eddie Farnsworth. Farnsworth, who is also a man, declined to give it a hearing. Which means that it went nowhere.
So on Thursday, as the House floor session was wrapping up, Powers Hannley requested a vote on the bill, which she described as "a simple, one-statement sentence."
(Here's that sentence, by the way: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.")
A bunch of white dudes in suits — who knows which ones, they all look the same — huddled together nervously for a few minutes and tried to figure out what to do. After a few minutes of consultation, Mesnard motioned for the House to recess, which is legislative speak for "Let's talk about this later, and by later, I mean never."
His fellow Republicans followed his lead and voted to recess. Then Representative Bob Thorpe, a Tea Partier from Flagstaff best known for hanging out with Cliven Bundy and making questionable comments about black people, got up to talk about why the legislature shouldn't discuss the Equal Rights Amendment.
"Let me explain the constitutional issues," he began. We can only assume that, at this point, every single female legislator in the room died inside a little bit.
In a nutshell: The deadline to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment has passed, and there's some debate over whether or not it's possible to challenge that deadline.
"I’m not getting political on this one," Thorpe eventually finished up. "I’m trying to be constitutional on this one, and I believe that if we took action to ratify, we would be outside the Constitution in doing so."
Yeah, well, we definitely wouldn't want to pass any unconstitutional laws. Like preventing college students from using their dorm addresses to register to vote, banning social-justice-themed classes or events at schools, or requiring federal law enforcement officers to register with local sheriffs and hand over a portion of the fines that they collect. All of which are real pieces of legislation that Thorpe himself has either introduced or sponsored.
In fact, for someone who seems to really love the Constitution (he also co-sponsored a bill that would have required all Arizona high schools to swear a loyalty oath and promise to defend it,) it's not clear that Thorpe has read the thing, or understands how it's supposed to work.
Anyway. After Thorpe was done, the Democrats — presumably figuring that if they couldn't get a vote on the Equal Rights Amendment, they could at least force Republicans to sit still and listen to them talk about it — took turns explaining why they were voting not to recess.
"When I first ran for the State Senate in 1976, the ERA was in play," Phoenix Rep. Lela Alston, who is 74, said. "At that time, my daughter was 16 years old, and I thought that by the time she was an adult and a young working professional, there would be equal pay for women.
"I now have two adult granddaughters, who were not even imagined in my life at the first time I was in office, so there have been two generations since this was first considered. I’m hopeful that someday I will have a great-granddaughter, and that I’m not still here giving this same tired speech."
The Democrats' speechmaking went on for about an hour, possibly to the annoyance of House Republicans, who stayed firmly committed to taking a recess instead of having a discussion about women's rights.
Most of them didn't bother to explain their positions, so we can't say for certain whether they a) don't care about women, b) simply weren't interested in supporting anything proposed by the other party, c) just wanted to eat lunch already, or d) some combination of the three.
At the very end, though, Mesa Rep. Kelly Townsend got up and ... sort of explained why she was voting to recess? Basically, she thinks that telling businesses what to do is bad, but also thinks that discrimination is bad. She mostly sounded confused, and hungry.
"I don’t know that this is necessarily a party issue on its surface, but I do need to learn more about what is in this Equal Rights Amendment before I decide to support it or not support it," she said. (Again, it is literally one sentence.)
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"And lastly, I’d like to say to the other members … I don’t appreciate this being sprung on us at lunchtime. I would have loved to have had time to discuss this with you guys, and for you to have the opportunity to educate me on this, but I think this is not the right time."
With that, House Speaker Mesnard wrapped things up, insisting that the Republican majority's decision to take a recess wasn't a necessarily a vote against equal rights.
"It doesn’t mean that it’s not going to happen in the future, it doesn’t mean that it’s not a worthwhile debate to have," he said.
He then turned around and told KTAR that he doesn't plan to allow a vote on the Equal Rights Amendment this year. So it looks like we'll all be waiting awhile longer.