State Watch

Virginia targets historic push on Equal Rights Amendment for women

Virginia targets historic push on Equal Rights Amendment for women

The election of a Democratic legislature in Virginia is breathing new life into a decades-long push for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would enshrine equality for women into the U.S. Constitution.

Ratifying the ERA, a long-standing goal for women’s rights advocates, needs approval from just one more state to cross the three-fourths threshold of support needed to become a constitutional amendment. 

Proponents believe ERA will protect women from discrimination and gender-based violence at a time of heightened sensitivity to women's issues sparked by the #MeToo movement. 

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And they are hopeful that Virginia will become the 38th state that could ratify the ERA, completing a necessary step needed for a constitutional amendment, after advocates campaigned hard on the issue during the elections in November that gave Democrats control of the legislature for the first time in decades.

Incoming Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D), the first woman to hold the title, told The Hill in an interview that ratifying the ERA will be a “top priority” when the new legislature convenes next year.

“Our Democratic delegates, incumbents and the candidates made it clear that ERA ratification is a priority,” Filler-Corn said.

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“It’s past time that women are included in the founding document of our country and we’ll continue this fight until it’s won, and quite clearly that will be very soon after we gavel in in January,” the Speaker-elect added. 

She declined to give a specific timeline as to when ratification legislation would be tackled, but said she believes it will be one of the first issues taken on.

Her tenure as Speaker will come as the largest number of women were elected to Virginia's General Assembly in its history, winning 41 of the legislature’s 140 seats.

The ERA would insert into the Constitution 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” and gives Congress the power to enforce this.

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Jessica Neuwirth, the co-president of the ERA Coalition, which advocates for the amendment’s ratification, says it will create a “more effective legal recourse for women who are subject to various forms of violence and discrimination.” 

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D) has already filed a bill to ratify the ERA during the next legislative session and a companion bill has been introduced in the House. 

“I think it’s certain,” she said of the prospects of ERA’s passage in Virginia. “It’s a top priority for both the Senate and the House Democrats, we also have Republicans in the Senate who are supporting.”

“I suspect that it will pass very quickly,” she added in an interview with The Hill. 

The ERA was passed with a two-thirds majority by both Houses of Congress in 1972 and was ratified by 35 states in the 1970s.

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It was then ratified by Nevada in 2017 and Illinois in 2018, falling just one state short. A constitutional amendment requires passage by a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate and ratification by at least three-fourths of the state legislatures. 

Some doubts remain about whether the amendment would actually become part of the Constitution since it was originally approved by lawmakers with a deadline that has since elapsed. 

Nonetheless, the focus remains on Virginia. The ERA passed the Republican-led state Senate in January of this year, but a measure to force a floor vote failed in the Republican-led House by one vote in February, dashing hopes that the ERA would be passed in 2019. 

The Associated Press reported that some Republicans at the vote said that ratifying the ERA could make it harder for women-owned companies to get state contracts. 

And GOP House Majority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert was quoted by the wire service as saying that the amendment could lead to “an unfettered right to an abortion, right up until the moment of birth and at taxpayer expense.”

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The text of the amendment does not refer to abortions.  

ERA supporters in Virginia believe voters are on their side. The ERA was one of a series of issues, including gun control and climate change, that Democrats used to galvanize voters. 

National Organization for Women President Toni Van Pelt said that her group campaigned on the issue, focusing on college campuses. 

“We worked on the campuses, we helped students get registered, we had campus organizers, we attended rallies and flea markets and fall festivals stumping for our candidates for equality, that these were people that, if they were elected, they would vote for the Equal Rights Amendment,” she said. 

ERA Coalition co-President Carol Jenkins said that her group also participated in “get out the vote” efforts. 

Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, who began his career in Virginia politics, said he believed the issue helped Democrats flip the legislature.

“For voters, especially women voters who were critical to flipping the chambers, the debate around the ERA crystallized the stakes,” Ferguson said. “It’s an issue that mattered to voting turnout and persuading swing voters who believe that it’s long past time to pass the ERA.”

McClellan said that during the recent election, she traveled all over the state to help other candidates campaign and said that in “every corner of the commonwealth, people were talking” about the ERA. 

“It definitely was a rallying cry in these elections,” she said.