The Virginia General Assembly concluded its 1979 session early this morning after delivering the latest in a series of crushing defeats to legislation long sought by various women's groups in the state.
The most bitterly received and the most surprising defeat came late Saturday night to a bill that would have dramatically revised Virginia's rape and sexual assault laws.
Earlier in the session, measures to aid battered wives, to establish the concept of marital property in divorce settlements and to enable the state to pursue deserting fathers and husbands who flee to other states also died at various stages in the legislative process.
"all the women's bills got killed," said Del. Mary A. Marshall (D-Arlington), one of the only nine women in the 140-member assembly.
Ticking off a list of failures for measures sought by and affecting women, Del. Elise B. Heinz (D-Arlington) also included the proposal to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.
"But one gets used to that," said Heinz, noting that ratification has been killed in committee during each of the past seven assembly sessions.
Unlike the ERA resolution, the sexual assault measure had passed both the Senate and the House midway through the session and had been sent to a House-Senate conference committee to work out conflicting amendments.
It was in the conference committee that the bill encountered what turned out to be fatal opposition, according to Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax), chief sponsor of the legislation.
The bill, as originally drafted after a two-year task force study, would have divided sexual assault into four different categories, depending upon whether the attack involved sexual intercourse or other forms of bodily contact. Distinctions also would have been made based on the amount and type of force used by an attacker.
Penalties ranged from one year to life in prison.
The measure would have placed increased emphasis on the violence involved in a sexual assault, and would have stipulated that the testimony of the victim alone could be sufficient for conviction in rape cases. This would have been a departure from present law, which requires that a victim must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she did not consent to sexual relations.
The bill also would have severely limited the use of testimony aout the victim's sexual history.
In a long, emotional speech to the Senate during the last hours of the session, Gartlan complained that the sexual assault bill had been irreparably damaged by "ridiculous" amendments and then abandoned by legislators who had been appointed to work out a compromise.
"There are problems and deficiencies and defects in this bill not because the legislative process has failed but because it has been abused," said Gartlan, who joined the Senate in voting 29-10 against the measure when the amended version came to the floor.
With the House in temporary recess late Saturday night and while weary delegates looked on from the gallery and the rear of the Senate chamber, Gartlan attacked House amendments to the bill.
He also complained that two of his Senate colleagues on the conference committee had waited until the last day of the session to tell him they opposed some of the measure's basic concepts and language.
"I could have taken the Hail Mary, and Apostles Creed and the Ten Commandments and put them in the bill and it would still not have been acceptable," said Gartlan.
The Fairfax legislator particularly complained that the House added an amendment to the bill allowing a defendant in a rape case to use intoxication as a defense for his actions.
That provision alone, said Gartlan, forced him to vote against the bill even though other valuable portions of the measure remained intact. He complained that House conferees had refused to withdraw the provision.
Sen. Dudley J. Emick Jr. (D-Botetourt) a member of the conference committee, argued that, even without this amendment, the measure would not have helped the very women it had been drafted to aid.
"I don't understand it, I can't explain it to anyone and I don't think any commonwealth's attorney will be able to prosecute under it," said Emick, who noted that several county prosecutors opposed the legislation.
Senators generally agreed during floor debate on the bill Saturday night that it was too late in the session to form a new conference committee to form a new conference committee to try to rescue the measure.
But Sen. Stanley C. Walker (D-Norfolk), who chaired the task force that drafted the legislation, said that failure to pass some law to revamp the hopes of hundreds of women who had testfied in behalf of or had helped write the bill.
"The women came to us and said that we have in this state a crime that is getting worse," said Walker, who protested that "never in my nearly 16 years in the assembly have I seen a committee stay in conference for a week and then in the closing hours tell us there are things in the bill they can't live with."
The divorce bill -- which had been sponsored by all nine women House members -- and other measures relating to women's concerns died in the assembly even though most of them had very little organized opposition.
The women's bills died while such controversial measures as those curbing the operations of telephone and gasoline companies survived intense lobbying efforts in opposition to their passage.