COLUMN: Birch Bayh's death reminds us of an opportunity to push for equality


Former Senator Birch Bayh speaks before the delegate assembly to select a presidential candidate of the New York State new Democratic coalition Dec. 12, 1975. Bayh, who was behind the Title IX legislation, died March 14 at the age of 91. Tribune News Service Buy Photos

Editor's note: this piece was edited for clarity.

Former Sen. Birch Bayh’s death should serve as an opportunity to thank one of Indiana’s greatest public servants. His death should also serve as a push to realize the equality he sought.

Bayh’s achievements form a long list. During his time in Congress, he was the principal author of two constitutional amendments: the 25th to make clear the line of succession to the presidency and the 26th to lower the voting age from 21 to 18.

Bayh is second only to James Madison in his drafting of successful constitutional amendments. Even so, former Rep. Lee Hamilton said Bayh’s efforts, along with those of then-Reps. Patsy Mink and Edith Green, in creating Title IX, a civil rights law protecting citizens against sex discrimination, has had the most influence on Americans’ daily lives.

Bayh was a liberal Democrat and a self-proclaimed feminist. His work on Title IX is merely one of the policies on the issue of gender equality.

A far more revolutionary effort was his sponsorship of the Equal Rights Amendment in the Senate after it cleared the House of Representatives in 1972, which would ban gender discrimination.

This is the part of his legacy that is unfinished and showcases the work that still needs to be done.

When the ERA passed the House, only 15 women served in Congress. Today, 127 do. Though this may seem like a victory, it is not. Indeed, women still make up only 23.7 percent of the current Congress.

It is incumbent upon us then to pick up where Bayh left off and vigorously pursue policies to make gender equality a reality.

A natural point from where to begin again would be the ERA. For ratification at the federal level, it needs to be passed by three-quarters of all states, or 38 states.

So far, 37 states have signed on to the amendment, including Indiana. Activists had hoped that Virginia would bring an end to their constituencies’ wait by becoming the 38th. Unfortunately, that hope was dashed when the bill was slashed in February.

Nearly half a century after Bayh championed the ERA in the Senate, it lies waiting to be ratified. However, even if it were to be adopted, it would not be enough. The ERA would mandate legal gender equality, but it would do little to change everyday sexism such as women disproportionately doing housework in the U.S.

The only way to eradicate discrimination is through equitable gender representation. However, parity in Congress will not just happen naturally. It needs to be forced. Women are significantly less likely to be encouraged to run for political office. The only way to ensure better representation is through mandating gender quotas for elected officials.

Gender quotas in Congress are necessary to smooth out systemic inequalities which continue existing even on a level playing field. This is not to say that women would be better elected officials than men, though there is data to that effect. It is simply to argue that for a government to be representative, it needs to look like the population it serves, and gender quotas would certainly with help this.

Additionally, any time quotas are talked about, people argue that it would simply empower mediocre performers. However, this could not be further from the truth. For example, when Sweden’s Social Democratic party embraced gender quotas, it did not swell its ranks with mediocre women but thinned them of mediocre men.

Birch Bayh used to say, “We work through the system.” Late in his career, however, he realized that it was the system that needed working. A fitting tribute to his legacy would be to internalize this recognition and couple it with a fervent support of gender equality equal to his own. Bayh’s work is incomplete. There’s no time for a break.

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