ST. GEORGE — Dozens of Southern Utah residents, including local politicians, gathered at Vernon Worthen Park on Saturday to support the fourth annual St. George Women’s March and Rally.
Participants stepped off from the location just after noon, looping around St. George Boulevard before reconvening at the park for an “upbeat, peaceful and empowering” rally featuring speakers from across the nation.
This year’s rally placed emphasis on the importance of the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, made up of 24 words.
Marianne Hamilton, who fulfilled the role of master of ceremonies for the event, told St. George News the event comes on the heels of a historic ratification of the ERA in Virginia last week, where proponents of the constitutional amendment secured a three-fourth majority of 38 states. Now, some Southern Utah residents are looking to their legislators to make Utah the 39th state to ratify the ERA.
“The community knows that this is a really, really important issue, not just for women in East Coast states or West Coast states but across all of America’s heartland,” Hamilton said. “It affects all of us.”
History of the ERA
Christian Nunes, vice president of the National Organization for Women, traveled to St. George from Washington D.C. to participate in the event as a keynote speaker. Nunes spoke with the audience about the history of the ERA in American politics.
The constitutional amendment was initially proposed in 1923 to invalidate state and federal laws that discriminate against women, arguing that gender should not determine the legal rights of men or women. The amendment was approved by the U.S. Senate 49 years later, in 1972, and sent to the states to be ratified.
Following its approval, the ERA was submitted to the state legislatures for ratification within seven years. During the first year, the amendment gained the ratification of 30 states, but opposition from religious and political organizations caused a standstill.
Supporters of the amendment could not secure the required majority of 38 states even with the deadline extension to 1982, reaching 35 states just before the extended deadline. It would have become the 27th Amendment to the Constitution.
“So here we are, pushing and moving forward and not giving up,” Nunes said. “What Congress didn’t know back in 1923 and 1972 and 1979 and 1982 is that when you get a group of badass feminists and allies together, we do not stop until we get what we want. Here we are, resisting and persisting.”
The recent ratification in Virginia is grounds to celebrate, she said, but it’s also important to emphasize that Utah’s involvement in the process is just as important.
“We can not stop at 38 states,” Nunes said. “We want to keep going; we want all of our states to be ratified. We want to make sure that we’re protecting our women, our daughters, our mothers, our friends.”
When Utah commits to ratifying the ERA, she said, the state is committing to creating a safe space for women, families and community. The amendment is also the first in a series of steps to ensuring protections for women of all races, ethnicities and religions, said Marlee Kanosh, of the Paiute Tribe of Utah and founder of Native Lives Matter.
How the ERA affects minority women
Kanosh was invited to attend as the event’s second keynote speaker, shedding more light on the injustices against indigenous women across the nation and even closer to home in Southern Utah. With the ratification of the ERA, indigenous women will also experience aid in their journey toward equality.
“Where’s our equal rights when it comes to our people?” she asked. “We need protection for our Native American women, not just any women and all women, but especially our native women. We need protection, and we need your help.”
“Indigenous women are often said to lead high-risk lives when we go missing or murdered. A lot of people look towards Native Americans as lazy, but we are not,” Kanosh said.
Murdered and missing indigenous women, she said, are also often ignored as families continue to search.
According to a study, Kanosh read during her speech called “Feminizing Poverty,” the percentage of women living in poverty is 22.8% indigenous women, the highest of all races. Likewise, the percentage of children living in poverty is 25.4% indigenous, also the highest of all races.
Over 5,000 indigenous women were murdered or missing in 2016, and 84% of indigenous women have reported experiencing violence in their lifetime. Indigenous women are also two times more likely to experience sexual assault in their lifetimes over Caucasian women.
According to more recent statistics from the United Indigenous Natives of Southern Utah, there were 506 missing and murdered indigenous women cases identified over the past year, and of those, 128 were missing indigenous women cases, 280 were murdered and 90 had an “unknown status.” The average age was 29 years old.
“We are such a small percentage in the state — Utah and the United States — that every murder is genocide,” Kanosh said.
Local lawmakers weigh in
Saturday’s events also included talks from local politicians, such as the first female elected to Hildale’s public office, Mayor Donia Jessop. Jessop looked out over the crowd and said the purpose of her presence at the event was to encourage every person to take a seat at the table, especially Utah women.
Two years ago, Jessop was invited to speak at the second St. George Women’s March but declined the invitation and made up an excuse for her absence because she was “too scared,” she said. Last year, Jessop attended the event, hanging on to the idea that she did not deserve to be on stage. Now, she said, that’s all changed.
“This year I’m saying, ‘I’m worthy of being here.’ Thank you for having me, and thank you for showing up with me,” Jessop said. “We’re changing the way Utahns think. We can show up for each other in ways that we don’t even realize we’re doing.”
St. George Mayor Jon Pike, who was also in attendance, said he came to show support for three big items that “many people, if not all people, can agree on.” Pike said equality of rights under the law should not be denied or abridged in the U.S. or by any state on account of sex, the growing wage gap between men and women needs to change and communities would benefit from more women in leadership roles in government, education and business.
“Let’s all pledge to help and actually help these things get accomplished,” he said.
Opposition to the ERA
The main objections to the ERA are that, with its ratification, women would lose privileges and protections, including exemptions from compulsory military service and combat duty. In more recent history, the biggest arguments against the amendment is that it would be used to overturn abortion restrictions or mandate taxpayer funding of elective Medicaid abortions.
Opponents of the amendment also state that the ERA would overturn practices that benefit women because they would be viewed as showing preferential treatment to women. This might include law that provide special accommodation for pregnant women, Social Security benefits for stay-at-home mothers based on their spouse’s income and laws that support women in areas of alimony and child support.
In Utah, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced it would continue to oppose the ERA in December, adding that it had maintained its position for 40 years.
Although the church “has championed the rights of women in our society,” the entity announced in a statement, it does not agree with the deceptively simple language that does not consider “unnatural consequences which could result because of its very vagueness,” including the “encouragement of those who seek a unisex society, an increase in the practice of homosexual and lesbian activities, and other concepts which could alter the natural, God-given relationship of men and women.”
Furthermore, the church believes the ERA would hurt the family by encouraging legal conflict in a relationship, invite legal action on every point of conflict between men and women, does not recognize the biological – specifically emotional – differences between men and women, and is a “simplistic approach to complex and vitally important problems.”
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