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It’s been a landmark week for Virginia Democrats, who, after flipping control of both houses of the state General Assembly, will now hold control over the state House, the state Senate and the governor’s office come January. Such a sweep hasn’t been seen for Democrats in the state of Virginia in more than two decades, since 1993.
Going into the election, Republicans had maintained a small majority of 20-19 in the Senate as well as a 51-48 majority in the House. With one vacancy in each chamber and all 140 seats on the ballot, both parties had been making strong appeals to the public to go out and vote. It’s the possible ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, though, which has been under consideration for nearly 100 years, that’s on the tips of Democratic lawmakers’ tongues following word of their newly held majority.
What is the Equal Rights Amendment?
The first visible demand for women’s suffrage occurred in 1848 by activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. The growing movement was then put into writing by suffragist Alice Paul in 1923 in the form of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
Today, its premise remains essentially the same, calling for the “equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. [The ERA] seeks to end the legal distinctions between men and women in terms of divorce, property, employment, and other matters,” according to the official website.
The amendment was passed in 1972 by the House of Representatives, followed by the U.S. Senate, where it fell into the hands of the states to determine a final verdict. That push for ratification failed, unable to garner the three-fourths vote required to back it by an original deadline of seven years. If passed, the Constitution would have been amended to state that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."
What does the new Democratic majority in VA mean for the ERA?
When the ERA passed Congress with bipartisan support in 1972, the support of 38 states was necessary to complete the three-fourths majority. While 35 states moved quickly to ratify the amendment, the rest lagged as debate around it became increasingly heated. A 36th state, Nevada, moved to ratify it 40 years later in 2017 — then followed by Illinois the next year. That would make Virginia the 38th and final state needed for the amendment to pass, if it were to ratify the amendment.
As Democrats celebrated their sweep in Richmond, promises were made by top officials to make the ERA a priority in 2020. "One thing we are going to need to do right away is pass the Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia," said state Senate Democratic leader Dick Saslaw, according to CNN. "It's high time we include the women of this country in the Constitution of the United States."
“Men and women should be treated equally under the law. It seems pretty basic, right?” Lisa Murkowski (R) and Ben Cardin (D) question in an op-ed they co-wrote earlier this year for The Washington Post. “We come from different ends of the political spectrum, but we agree that this needs to change.”
The two politicians go on to quote current and former Supreme Court Justices on both sides of the aisle, such as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a women’s rights pioneer and the second woman ever appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, who put it simply: “Every constitution written since the end of World War II includes a provision that men and women are citizens of equal stature. Ours does not.”
The op-ed also quoted Justice Antonin Scalia during a 2011 interview, summing up the need for an Equal Rights Amendment. "Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t.”
The main question now is whether or not Congress will remove the deadline, which technically passed in 1982. The next step in the process to repeal the deadline includes a yet-to-be-scheduled House Judiciary Committee markup that could possibly take place within the coming weeks, though the ERA could hit a major roadblock if Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) refuses to allow a vote. Some supporters say that the 27th Amendment shows that Congress shouldn’t have even imposed a deadline on the proposed amendment in the first place. Taking this all into consideration it’s very possible the decision will ultimately end up in front of the Supreme Court, but only time will tell.