Working to Give Women “Individual Dignity”: Equal Protection of the Laws under Montana’s Constitution

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Montana Women’s Political Caucus member Pat Regan, who served in the legislature from 1973 to 1989, chafed at the unconscious sexism many of her male colleagues exhibited. In response, she bought a small stuffed pig to which she affixed a button that read “Male Chauvinist Pig.” Whenever a senator made a particularly sexist remark, she’d have a page deliver the pig to his desk. Gradually, she said, consciousness was raised. Billings Gazette, October 31, 1972

In 1972 Americans were engaged in a national debate over whether to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. That debate informed discussion during Montana’s 1972 constitutional convention, and convention delegates enshrined equal protection in the “individual dignity” clause of its Declaration of Rights. Backed by this promise of equality, women’s rights advocates and members of the newly formed Montana Women’s Political Caucus, an organization of female state legislators, worked to reform Montana’s laws to erase sex discrimination. Through their efforts, the 1970s saw important steps toward equalization of Montana’s laws; however, the Montana Supreme Court’s conservative application of the individual dignity clause to sex discrimination undercut the potential for radical strides toward legal equality.

The “Declaration of Rights” in Montana’s 1889 Constitution had stated that “all persons are born equally free,” but the new constitution went far beyond that vague provision in its individual dignity clause. Working on the language for the state’s new constitution, delegate Virginia Blend of Great Falls proposed that the actual language of the Equal Rights Amendment be included in the Declaration of Rights. Instead the 1972 Constitution addressed the issue of gender equity in the constitution’s “individual dignity” clause, which guaranteed equal protection of the laws. Notable for its expansiveness, Article II, Section 4, of the 1972 constitution promised that “Neither the state nor any person, firm, corporation, or institution shall discriminate against any person in the exercise of his civil or political rights on account of race, color, sex, culture, social origin or condition, or political or religious ideas.” The clause links equality to human dignity and includes a long list of protected classes, making it, according to scholars Larry Elison and Fritz Snyder, the “most inclusive scheme of ‘equal rights’ of any known constitution.” Continue reading

Defining Gender Equality: The Debate over the Equal Rights Amendment in Montana

Handwritten letter from Sharon Luckenbill to Senator Lee Metcalf, dated February 27, 1975, opposing the ERA.

North Toole County High School student Sharon Luckenbell wrote this letter to Senator Lee Metcalf, expressing her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. Click image to see larger copy. MHS Archives, MC 172 Box 352 F 1

When the U.S. Senate approved the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in March 1972, the next step—passage by two-thirds of state legislatures—seemed a formality. However, over the next decade, the battle over ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment revealed that America was still divided over equality between the sexes. In Montana the controversy over the ERA suggests equal unease.

The Equal Rights Amendment read simply, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” First proposed in 1923, the amendment passed out of Congress in 1972. It then went to the states for approval. In theory, Montana’s ratification should have been easy; the state  constitution, recently passed in 1972, included an “individual dignity” clause that already guaranteed Montana women equal rights. In fact, ERA proponents argued that ratification was a way for Montanans to ensure that “their loved ones in other states . . . enjoy the same benefits and protections which we have under our state laws.”

In reality, ratification was controversial from the beginning. The amendment “breezed through the House by a 73-23 vote” in 1973, but, despite the fact that forty out of Montana’s fifty state senators had signed on as sponsors of the bill, anti-ERA activists managed to convince the Senate to table discussion. Continue reading