NORMAN — “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.”
Those are words you won’t find in the U.S. Constitution. Despite passing the U.S. Senate in 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment failed to gain the approval of the requisite 38 states within a 10-year window.
Two states — Nevada and Illinois — have approved the amendment in the last two years. Though four states — Nebraska, Tennessee, Idaho and Kentucky — rescinded their ratifications during a swell of conservative backlash in the 70s, the number of states that has at some point approved ratification now sits at 37, just one shy of the magic number.
Oklahoma was among those that did not approve, but a new effort is gaining momentum and bringing the Equal Rights Amendment back into focus.
On Tuesday, the Norman City Council, led by a female majority and female mayor, unanimously approved a resolution expressing Norman’s support for the amendment and calling on the state legislature to finally ratify it.
Rep. Emily Virgin and Rep. Merleyn Bell were in attendance for the vote, which brought with it tears and a renewed call for women to be recognized unequivocally as equals in the nation’s most sacred political document.
“We’re only one state away from ratification,” Virgin said. “That’s important and I think Oklahoma could be the 38th state to do it, but it’s also about getting the conversation started again.”
Virgin said Nevada and Illinois have done their part and now it’s time for Oklahoma to do its part to shed light on the issues women still face regarding gender inequality.
There are measures in place that have advanced the rights of women in the United States, such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Educational Amendment of 1972 (Title IX), the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, and the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993, but Virgin said there is still a need for more.
“[The Equal Rights Amendment] has more than pay,” she said. “It has an important health care component and discrimination components, which we know are covered in other areas of the law, but you can never have too much in terms of those protections. We have the equal pay statute, but we know the issue hasn’t been fully addressed. This would give us some more remedies to pursue if we did see some unequal pay were occurring.”
Virgin said there are ongoing discussions about how to address the issue at the Capitol, including a possible joint resolution or ballot initiative.
“We have nine new members of the Democratic caucus, seven of whom are women, and several of them are interested in pursuing this,” she said.
Virgin said though there’s no sound reason to oppose the move, she expects that there could be some familiar pushback.
“[It would] probably be the same that we’ve seen on the equal pay legislation that we’ve attempted to run in the past, which is people not seeing the need for it,” she said. “That’s unfortunate, because the need still exists, and, as councilwoman [Breea] Clark pointed out we have a long way to go in several areas for quality of life for women in Oklahoma.
“Even if it doesn’t pass, it’s an important conversation to have because it does bring to light many of those issues that we’re facing as women in Oklahoma.”
Council member Stephen Tyler Holman said he’s excited to see Norman become the first city to push legislators to do the right thing.
“Whether they will or not, we’ll see,” he said.
Acknowledging the challenges of the past and the potentially challenging road ahead, council member Kate Bierman said Tuesday’s resolution was about doing whatever possible. It may have been little more than a statement, but she said it’s one that Oklahoma needs to hear.
“At least for the next 27 minutes it is still my daughter’s first birthday and I can tell her that I was here doing what I could do to make sure that we passed the Equal Rights Amendment,” she said. “I might be beating my head against a brick wall but I’ll be damned if I’m not going to get bruised and bloody doing it.”
• City attorney saga moves to endgame: After months of adjourning into executive sessions to discuss a possible investigation into City Attorney Jeff Bryant, the council took a turn Tuesday, adjourning into executive session to discuss and consider the possible terms of a separation agreement.
The executive session, which lasted roughly an hour, also included discussion about potential authorization of public funds for said agreement.
Bryant said his attorney was present for the negotiations but he is unable to comment at this time.
• City approves medical marijuana ordinance: On Tuesday, the council approved the city’s medical marijuana zoning ordinance on second reading, reducing the annual commercial licensing fee to $100.
The move comes despite a looming Tulsa County Court decision that could preempt cities from regulating medical marijuana, the prevailing logic being that it’s better to have a policy in place than to wait any longer.
The council also approved marijuana decriminalization on first reading. The measure will come back to the council in January.
• Parking strategic plan report accepted: The council unanimously approved the acceptance of the parking strategic plan final report Tuesday. The report, which was prepared by Kimley-Horn and Associates, sets the framework for the creation of a parking authority to manage public parking facilities.
“The other thing this resolution does is it appoints two council members —[Bill] Hickman and Clark — to serve as liaisons along with a Cleveland County Commissioner — I believe Commissioner [Darry] Stacy — to a working group focused on the creation of that parking governance structure and implementation of the plan,” said ADG program manager Leslie Tabor.
Other details, such as the controversial possibility of parking meters on Main Street, are far from finalized.
• Mayor makes statement: After announcing her intention not to seek re-election in February in Sunday’s edition of The Transcript, Mayor Lynne Miller offered a statement on her time in office and the months that lie ahead.
“I want to everybody to know that when I ran for city council, when I ran for mayor, I ran to be a public servant,” she said. “That’s what I have tried to do every single day that I have been on the council. And I plan to continue doing that every single day until I walk out of that office in July. It is an honor to be mayor of this community. We have all sorts of stuff coming up this spring and I look forward to getting stuff done.”