In the male-dominated Virginia legislature, the gains of women's rights advocates are measured in small ways.
While 35 states have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, a full chamber of the General Assembly finally voted on the issue for the first time this session. ERA lost by one vote in the Senate.
In another first, the seven women (all House members) among the 140 state legislators banded together as a "women's caucus" in an attempt to win approval of legislation to protect the property rights of the "non-wage earning spouse," usually women, in the event of widowhood or divorce.
Today, the House of Delegates gave preliminary approval to two of the cuacus' proposals which, taken together, would guarantee a widow one-third of the real estate left by her husband.
Under current Virginia law, all real estate owned by married men, unless otherwise specified in a will, goes directly to his children, with the widow receiving only a one-third "life interest" in the property. The change approved by the House today on a voice vote would give widows one-third of the property outright, enabling them to sell it or otherwise dispose of it without first seeking approval of their children.
Still, the bills tentatively approved today are but a fraction of the legislation introduced by the women's caucus.
The cuacus' efforts often have been met with bemusement by their male colleagues, some of whom like to call the proposals "the ladies' bills" or "the women folk's bills."
Most of the more innovative ideas included in the owmen's property rights package ended up on the cutting room floor of the powerful, all-male House Courts of Justice Committee, which Del. Mary A. Marshall described as "the Bermuda Triangle of the Virginia General Assembly."
In addition to the bills that tentatively passed the House today, the committee also approved legislation that would enable a judge to consider a spouse's "non-monetary contribution" to a marriage as a factor in dividing the property in a divorce settlement.
The committee also approved amendments to existing divorce laws that would permit a judge to reward a lump sum payment to a divorced wife in addition to monthly support payments and to take into account all of a husband's property, not just his income, in fixing the amount of the payment. The committee's approval of these changes, however, has not yet been acted on by the full House.
But the committee killed caucus efforts to establish a new legal concept called "the marital estate," which would have meant that anything bought by either husband or wife with income earned during the marriage would have belonged to both of them. Under the caucus' proposed legislation, a judge in a divorce case would then have been able to divide the marital estate according to each partner's contribution during the marriage and their individual needs after it was ended.
Courts of Justice Committee members also took a dim view of caucus proposals to have the division or property take place at the same time as the divorce, rather than in a separate suit, which, the women contended, means additional legal expenses for housewives who are usually already at a financial disadvantage in a divorce case.
The committee also killed caucus recommendations that a judge in a divorce case would give first consideration to awarding a couple's home to the spouse who has custody of the children.
Throughout committee hearings on the cuacus package, committee members expressed concern over the technical language of the bills and of their possible effects on Virginia property law in general. Remarking on the treatment the bills had received in committee, committee member Thomas W. Moss Jr. (D-Norfolk), one of the most ardent opponents of most of the proposals, said, "We haven't turned them into anti-women's bills. These are just "forgive them for they know not what they do bills."
Some of the caucus members, however, saw the male delegates' attitude toward their legislation in a different light. "Actually they're scared of us," said one caucus member. "What we're trying to do involves a trasnsfer of power, and nothing scares them more than that."
But, said Del. J. Samuel Glasscock (D-Suffolk), a subcommittee chairman who had worked with the women to get the bills in a form acceptable to the rest of the committee, "I knew we hadn't gotten much when Tom (Moss) said they were all right."
Despite the fact that many of the major features had been gutted from their legislation, the women said they were pleased with what they had been able to achieve this session in their legislative debut as a caucus.
"It's a first step," said Del. Evelyn M. Hailey (D-Norfolk). "We're planted the seed, and now we'll continue to plow and water and nurture. We've created an awareness of the issues - that under current law, the occupation of homemaker can hazardous to a woman's financial future."
The five other women in the Virginia House are Dels. Dorothy S. McDiarmid (D-Fairfax), Donnie L. Paul (R-Harrisonburg), Eva F. Scott (I-Dinwiddie), and Joan Jones (D-Lynchburg).