Shortly before the General Assembly convened on Wednesday, three large gree-and-white banners were hung from second-floor windows in the venerable Hotel Raleigh that faces the Virginia state capitol. "ERA-YES" say one; "Virgininans for ERA" says another.
The banners are more than mere window dressing; they are symbols of an ambitious lobbying effort that has been undertaken to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed by the Virginia legislature this year. The effort, complete with polls, newsletters, mailings, a full-time office staffed around the clock, and insistent, persistent personal lobbying, is part of a national move to persuade at least three more state legislature to ratify the proposed constitutional amendment before the seven-year time period runs out in March, 1979.
Although few national organizations that support the ERA view its Virginia chances of passage with much optimism, local workers are undaunted and have solicited and received technical and financial help from the National Organization for Women (NOW) and a few other groups. With a budget of $13,000 from NOW, and their own modest fund-raising, the coalition of volunteers from different pro-ERA groups is now camped out in four rooms in the Raleigh and aggresively pursuing its goal.
"We no longer approach the Assembly, bonnet in hand, to beg to equality," they said in a statement issued the other day. "We demand that his amendment be passed - or, by God, we will defeat them, one-by-one, across the state . . ."
This aggressiveness does not always sit well with the gentlemen and gentlewomen of the legislature, some of whom repeat the adage, "you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," when asked about ERA supporters.
However, there is evidence of some sel-conscious acknowledgement of the under-lying social conflict that the subject of women's rights tends to produce. For example, at the opening legislative session when Democratic caucus chairman Del. C. Hardaway Marsk (D-Hopewell) rose to make a routine announcement, he started by saying, "Gentlemen," then paused, turned around for a mumbled exchange with Majority Leader A. L. Philpott (D-Henry) and then spoke again: "excuse me, Mr. Philpott reminds me I'm supposed to say 'ladies,' too." Both Marks and Philpott oppose the ERA.
Senate Majority Leader Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax) carefully corrected himself during an interview the other day, from "chairman" to "chairperson" when referring to the female head of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee. Brault is for the ERA, as are all but two of the legislators from Northern Virginia.
Such trivial incidents are merely signposts showing that the lobbying for ERA has created consciousness of the issue, whether pro or con. In hard numbers, the sentiment of the legislature is too close to call, and as with any issue that has been around for years, legislators have hardened in their positions. Only a handful of legislators are judged by ERA supporters to be "soft" in their views.
Earlier this week the ERA group, which is issuing information under the name of Virginians for the Equal Rights Amendment (VERA), released a poll showing that 59 per cent of Virginians think the General Assembly should ratify the ERA.
The poll, conducted by the well-known political surveying firm of William R. Hamilton, was part of a canvass taken for a current senatorial candidate who permitted VERA to have the information if the organization didn't release his name. The ERA question was one of a series of issue questions and was phrased as follows:
"Do you think the Virginia General Assembly should ratify the Equal Rights Amendment?"
The firm surveyed 507 "likely voters" last October, ERA spokeswoman Patricia Goodman said. Overall, 28 per cent opposed the ERA and 13 per cent had no opinion. Geographically, Northern Virginia showed the largest amount of support, 70 per cent, and the Richmond area the least, 46 per cent.
Release of this poll, and another release today reporting that outgoing Attorney General Anthony F. Troy had issued an opinion disputing ERA opponents' claims that the amendment would permit homosexuals to marry or would prevent states from enacting family law, are aimed at combating opponents with "factual" counterclaims. VERA and Virginia NOW have offered to pay for polls in some individual House members' home districts to convince them that their constituents want the ERA to be passed.
"Polls can show anything you want them to," countered Del. Eva Scott (I-Dinwiddie), a long-time ERA opponent. She cited a national poll made by Decision Making Information of Santa Ana, Calif., for the Women's Forum. This poll found that nationally Americans are against the ERA in a ratio of 2 to 1. There were four questions asked on this poll, Scott said, asking "if the ERA means that homosexuals would be allowed to get marriage licenses and teach in school, would you support it?" and similar phrasings.
The opponents do not plan a statewide Virginia poll Mrs Scott said, because "We don't have the money." They will hold an "open house" on Jan. 24 at a church near the Capitol, two days after a rally planned by coalition of Virginia labor unions by dem- [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]
House members who support ERA have formed a steering committee to tackle the actual work of getting the amendment onto the floor of the House for a vote.
Chances for passage are considered better if all House members are forced to vote on it; ever since its introduction it has been bottled up in the House Committee on Privileges and Elections. An effort to circumvent the committee by changing the rules of the House to require that a constitutional amendment to sent to the full House regardless of whether it has been approved by a committee is currently the steering committee's first task.
Support and opposition for the ERA crosses both partisan and geographic boundaries. Of the 35 firm supporters of both the ERA and the rules change, five are Republicans, and of the 40 unalterably opposed to both, 11 are, according to ERA supporters. (There are 21 Republicans among the 100 House members. Fifty-one votes are needed for ratification in the House and 21 in the 40-member Senate. Ratification failed by one vote in the Senate last year.)
"I'm undecided on the ERA," said Del. Thomas W. Moss (D-Norfolk), who is beginning his 13th year in the legislature.
Moss, the only member of the Norfolk delegation not supporting the amendment, said he was not convinced there was a need for it, thinks that such tactics as the economic boycott against states who have not ratified the ERA is "counter-productive," and said that other members resent that threat from ERA supporters that they will be defeated, like former Majority Leader James M. Thomson of Alexandria, if they do not support the ERA. Nor does he find the poll results convincing.
Of the 18 newly elected House members, nine support the ERA, including the man who defeated Thomson, Gary R. Myers (R-Alexandria), whose victory ERA supporters claim was the result of their work. Six of the new members oppose the amendment and three are listed by the NOW lobbyists as "soft."
"On the ERA? Only 29 per cent for," said Parker, an opponent.
"What about you, John?" Moss called to Del. John D. Gary (D-Hampton), another opponent. "I've talked to everyone (in my district) and most of 'em against it," Gray answered.
In short, the battle lines are drawn. The goal for ERA supporters is clear, but the attainment of it uncertain.
"The reality is that we're playing hard-ball," said Alice Cohan, field adviser of the national NOW ERA Strike Force. "To say it's not nice (to threaten election defeat and economic boycotts) is not to understand the electoral system in this country. Americans have always had redress through the ballot box . . . a tea boycott started the American revolution. It comes down to them getting a taste of their own medicine."