Start shedding Virginia's intolerant past with Equal Rights Amendment ratification

In the past few years, politics in Washington, D.C. has set a foul standard for acceptable behavior by elected officials and Americans have seemingly become desensitized to scandal. Virginia, for example, is clearly at a crossroads and not immune to appalling headlines involving racism and allegations of sexual assault.

Many women in Virginia have learned important lessons through their nearly 50-year fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, which if ratified in the next couple of weeks would start solving many of America’s challenges by restoring dignity to our state and setting a course for renewal.

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On Election Day in 2018, Virginia’s House of Delegates added 28 women and broke the previous record of 19 of its 100 members, which was set in 2013. Plus, voters chose six women who ran for the U.S. Congress from Virginia in the state’s 11-member delegation and among more than 100 women to win seats in the House of Representatives, which surpassed the earlier record of 84 and helped Democrats win the majority in the 435-seat chamber.

One prospect to kick-start America’s rebuilding is now before Virginia’s General Assembly. That is a resolution to become the critical 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. If successful, Virginia would show America that leaders in our state are committed to equality in action, not just in words. Without their genuine commitment to equality for women and men, any effort to correct longstanding racism and sexism would be tenuous at best.

Although the Virginia Senate showed its commitment to equality by authorizing the Equal Rights Amendment with strong bipartisan support, republican control in the State House currently opposes ERA ratification and has blocked a floor vote. The legislature’s next two weeks are pivotal, or ratification will advance elsewhere.

Virginia’s ambivalence to equality and recent failures by some of its male politicians uniquely qualify Virginia to serve as the crucible for the United States to forge ahead toward equality for all. Even Article I. Bill of Rights: Section 1. in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia begins with the words, “Equality and rights of men -- That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights…”

Virginians’ attitudes have long failed to recognize that all citizens are entitled to equality under the law. When Virginia’s economy depended on the slave trade, Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, begrudgingly and belatedly ratified the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Virginia erected monuments as a reminder of who held power during the Jim Crow era and then rejected women’s right to vote in the 19th Amendment until 1952, 32 years after it became law. 

Virginia failed to ratify the 24th Amendment, poll tax prohibition, for almost two decades after being ratified in the Constitution. It took many legal battles to reach the landmark civil rights decision of the United States Supreme Court in 1967, the aptly named Loving vs. Virginia, which finally ended all state laws banning interracial marriage. And, Virginia spent millions through the mid-1990s to enforce its government-sponsored sex discrimination at the Virginia Military Institute.   

Some might also reason that some of Virginia’s elected officials, women and men, govern by fear that serves an elite few instead of by a philosophy of democracy and equality for all. Too many partisans spread a myth that claims ERA ratification would protect abortion rights in the Constitution. That is untrue as even though the 14th Amendment prohibits overly burdensome restrictions of abortions. And they must know that any court that would overturn Roe v. Wade would not suddenly find unfettered abortion rights in the Equal Rights Amendment. That is pure nonsense.

Why do leaders in the State House use stalling tactics to reject the ERA when vast numbers of Virginians support it? Perhaps partisans grasp that the long-overdue Equal Rights Amendment is the game changer that Americans need. Among Virginia voters, 81 percent favor ratification of the ERA according to December 2018 polling from the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. The Virginia House, like the Senate, must support the Equal Rights Amendment with strong bipartisan support if given the chance.  

Americans demand action, not words — and action is required now. Virginia needs to step boldly in the direction of equality for all women and men. Women have awaken to the idea that centuries of a patriarchal model must now be modernized by a rights-based standard that is fair for all citizens. We women have had it with appeasement.

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In 2019, while hard-working women and men balance countless demands while raising their families, it is hard to remember a time when politics was a means to an end. “I used to vote Republican,” said Amanda McClusky of Richmond. “But now they’ve made me mad and if my friends need to watch my kids while I work to get this done, they will. Republicans do not want to keep activating women like me,” she added. An inclusive future rejects partisanship that is meant to impede progress and restrain our freedoms.

Before Virginia’s current legislative session ends, House leaders should allow a democratic debate and floor vote on the Equal Rights Amendment. We're hopeful when Virginia becomes that essential 38th state to ratify, America’s women will be ready to break through and embrace needed change.

Yvonne Lewis is chairwoman of Virginia’s Social Action Task Force, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and Kati Hornung is Campaign Coordinator for VAratifyERA