Two people did extraordinary things last week in the State Capitol. One managed to capture news headlines and television time, infuriate colleagues and sympathizers, and perhaps singlehandedly put what slim chances there are for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment here in jeopardy. The other was virtually unnoticed.
Marianne W. Fowler has been working for passage of the ERA for a long time. She's ridden a van around the state to talk to people about thre ERA, and since the session started, has been one of a handful of women here lobbying full-time for the ERA.
After the House priviledges and elections committee voted 12 to 8 last week to, in effect, kill the ERA, Fowler and about half to sing I am Woman," in the committee room. Others shouted such thing as. "We'll not be denied," and 'we'll be back."
From the committee room, tthe protests moved to the hall of the Capitol where a chant of "remembering Thomson," began (They were referring to Jim Thomson, former House majority leader for whose defeat last November ERA backers claim credit.) Fowler joined in. She was asked to leave by a Capitol police officer, refused and was subsequently gripped on each arm by an officer. She admits she spat in one of the officer's face.
She was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, trespassing and assault on a police officer and has in turn filed charges that the police assaulted her. A colleague, Jean Marshall Clarke, was also arrested - in her case the reasons for arrest are unclear. Nonetheless, Clarke responded to her arrest with a good old Vietnam War protest ERA action - go limp and sit down on the pavement. The police dragged her off.
Their actions have sangered some of their strongest allies, people who feel certain that the way to win points here is by quiet and persistent persuasion rather that noisy over-dramatic behavior.
It's all very well to argue that the people who vote against the ERA year after year are wrong, that it's very frustrating to work so hard for so many years only to be thwarded by a dozen men you may consider to be Neanderthal - or "dried up, withered old men," as Fowler put it.
But giving vent to those undeniably strong frustrations by making a scene in the halls of the Capitol is self-indulgent, and as more than one delegate has said, counter-productive. As women who selected themselves to represent other women all over Virginia, Fowler and Clarke had a responsibility to behave with more thought for the future.
About the only chance now to get the ERA passed in Virginia is to get a majority of the 100-member House to vote to discharge the committee from considering the bill, a parliamentary device to force the bill onto the House floor. The other alternative is a rules change requiring that proposed constitutional amendments be considered by the full House after one year in committee.
Either way , the chances are slim, and however you count them, the vote would be very close. In other words, every vote the pro-ERA forces can get, they need. Which brings us to the second person who did something extraordinary last week.
Del. Ford Quillen is a Democrat from Southwest Virginia - Gate City to be exact. He had nothing to gain by voting for the ERA. The papers in his area are against it, most of the other legislators from his area are against it, both the speaker and the majority leader of the House are against it, and the anti-ERA forces have been sending him a lot of mail. Not only that, it was clear his vote would not affect the outcome of the committee vote.
Quillen had been saying he was undecided on the ERA, and indeed he was, until right before the vote. "I kept waiting for some sign - usually you get sort of a gut feeling on which way to go," he said later. "But it didn't happened." But when they called his name, he voted along with the eight membet minority.
It's Ford Quillens of the world for whom Marianne Fowler has made life difficult. How many of the other delegates who are undecided - or were undecided - are going to be turned off because Marianne Fowler decided to spit in the face of a police officer? (And, what's more, a police officer who everyone knows and greets everyday when coming through the door.)
It's all very well to complain that the Virginia legislature is out of touch or out of date. And it's all very well to compare the ERA to the Civil Rights movement, when people did things that were considered obnoxious at the time in order to force a needed social change.
But, if this was a planned demonstration of protest, then it was poorly conceived and ineffective. If it was a spontaneous outburst of anguish, then it was unfortunate and undisciplined. ERA opponents will use this incident to discredit the thousands of other women who support the ERA; delegates who don't want to face the political hassles of a pro-ERA vote will use it as an excuse not to be identified with a small group of hysterical females.
Nobody feels they should have to beg for their rights. But, in the world of delicate political layers that make up any legislature, you rarely are successful by demanding them either.