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In honor of International Women’s Day 2024, I was glad to take part in a gathering of thoughtful, dynamic, engaged women leaders at The Carter Center in Atlanta on Monday, where we discussed how to advance gender equality and why this goal remains an urgent human rights priority.

It has been ten years since former President Jimmy Carter made a unique and important contribution on this front with the publication of his book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power. As a lifelong Baptist and a long-time Bible study teacher, Carter is bold and direct in calling religious institutions out for their complicity in perpetuating violence against women—a problem he calls “the human and civil rights issue of our time” (5). 

Misinterpretation of sacred scriptures by men in religious authority, Carter argues, has disempowered women and girls—enabling a multitude of grave abuses to persist.

[Jimmy Carter attends the 2007 Human Rights Defenders Forum at The Carter Center in Atlanta, GA. Credit: The Carter Center]

When his book was released in 2014, I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Carter speak to two distinguished audiences.

At the annual American Academy of Religion meeting in San Diego that year, Mr. Carter showed the courage and humility to speak from the heart to a large crowd of esteemed religious scholars, sharing what he knows to be true from his experience as both political leader and lay leader in the church.

At Yale University, where I was then a seminary student, Carter did not shrink from naming that elite institution among the schools facing damning revelations of campus sexual assault. “It happens at Yale,” he said pointedly. As a survivor and an advocate working to raise the profile of this issue, I was heartened to see a Christian man of rarified power use his bully pulpit to say that universities needed to stop this problem.

In the ten years since A Call to Action was released, no higher-profile U.S. leader has used his platform to elevate the issue of women’s human rights on the global stage—and to urge religious leaders, in particular, to get behind the work of gender justice. 

On the one hand, this feels fitting, coming from a president who has been especially open about his Christian faith and whose legacy includes centering human rights within U.S. foreign policy, to enduring effect. At the same time, however, Mr. Carter offers an all-too-rare and precious testimony to the value of women’s rights to the broader public good.

“This is not just a women’s issue… It affects us all” (3).

On Monday, Mr. Carter’s former daughter-in-law Judy Langford (now divorced from his son), who led the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) within the Carter Administration, explained that gender equality has always been a fundamental belief for the former president. “He couldn’t believe otherwise,” she said.

This is why Mr. Carter and his late wife Rosalynn disaffiliated from the Southern Baptist Convention after that body’s decision to no longer allow women to serve as deacons, pastors, chaplains, or seminary professors (22). The Carters stayed involved with their local Baptist church in Plains, Georgia, which continued to welcome women in pastoral leadership roles.

[Credit: The Carter Center, 2018]

Mr. Carter’s egalitarian ethos shone through his relationship with his late wife, Rosalynn. When Mrs. Carter requested an office in the White House, the president established the East Wing for the First Lady—a tradition that has endured since that time. 

“If she was a step behind, he would pull her forward,” one panelist commented this week.

Meredith Evans, who heads Mr. Carter’s presidential library (the first and only Black woman in such a role), highlighted his contributions in elevating women and people of color to the federal bench and high-ranking civil service roles.

Mr. Carter “transformed the power structure in the state of Georgia for women and people of color,” Evans explained. He appointed twice as many women and minority judges to the federal bench as all of his predecessors combined, she said.

One judge whom Mr. Carter first appointed to the federal bench went on to shape U.S. law profoundly. Her name was Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

As President, Jimmy Carter supported the ERA at every turn, including signing a law that extended the timeline for ratification. 

[Carter signs the extension of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978. Credit: The U.S. National Archives]

A Call to Action, Mr. Carter laments the conservative religious opposition that has hindered both the ERA and the Violence Against Women Act. On Monday, Ms. Langford indicated that the seeming defeat of the ERA—which only 35 states had ratified when Mr. Carter left office—was one of the most significant disappointments of his presidency.

Fortunately, as we have shared before, the Equal Rights Amendment has now garnered the additional three state ratifications needed, and can still be legally certified and published as the 28th Amendment. Through our collaborative #Faith4ERA campaign, Justice Revival and our partners continue to urge religious leaders and all U.S. citizens to support this basic and long-overdue human rights reform.

A Call to Action may provide renewed inspiration for this timely cause, as the Carter Center’s Human Rights Program launches a year of events to reintroduce this work to the public. If you have not yet read the book, I urge you to get a copy and join the conversation. 

As people of faith, it is imperative that we reflect prayerfully on the role of our religious institutions in historically supporting, tolerating, or ignoring a deeply gender-biased legal system that continues to disadvantage women and girls. It is vital that we ask our faith leaders where they stand and what they are doing to affirm equal and universal human rights today.

At the close of Monday’s event at the Carter Center, panelists were asked what comes to mind when they hear the words “gender equality.” Beth Davis, the Carter Center’s Chief of Staff, said it well: “There is still work to do. Get to work.”

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