Del. Lewis Parker (D-Mecklenburg) knows something about divorce. He's been through it twice. So does House Majority Leader Thomas Moss, now married for the second time.
So when the two got to talking the other day in a Virginia legislative committee about a divorce-reform measure, the debate took a personal turn.
"I just want to say that I've enjoyed every one of your weddings," joked Moss, interrupting Parker's harrowing tale of one divorce settlement. "And I've enjoyed yours," retorted Parker before both men voted against the divorce bill -- one of two dozen "women's bills" now making their way through the General Assembly.
That kind of attitude, which many find cavalier, is the bane of women's rights advocates in Virginia. Still reeling from this year's humiliating defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, these advocates also say they must do battle with the ingrained attitudes and prejudices of many of the state's conservative male legislators when pushing a host of other causes of everyday concern to women in the state.
"To me, they are not in the 20th century," said Ann Lunde, executive director of the Virginia Commission on the Status of Women. "When you go down and testify before a committee on a women's bill , they'll want to put you down and say, 'Are you sure it's constitutional?' They'll turn to each other and make jokes. They don't pay attention. They're very flippant."
Women charge these attitudes are reflected in state laws that date back to the colonial era, when husbands were the undisputed masters in a marriage and land was a sacred trust passed from father to son. Virginia today is one of only three states that do not accept the principle that marriage is a partnership in which half of a couple's earnings belongs to the wife. It is also far behind many of its neighbors in statutes governing divorce, inheritance and sexual assault.
"Women in Virginia today have the status of indentured servants," says Sen. Evelyn M. Hailey (D-Norfolk), one of only two women in the 40-member state Senate. "They're entitled to room and board and that's it."
For many male legislators, those ancient assumptions get tangled up in their own personal lives -- which, some say, explains why Moss, Parker and other ranking members of the House Corporations, Banking and Insurance Committee last week tried to scuttle the bill that would divide ownership of a married couple's joint bank account down the middle.
"It goes against the grain of Virginia tradition -- where a man earns the money and he decides what proportion to give his wife and that's it," says House Minority Leader Vincent Callahan (R-Fairfax), a supporter of the measure.
Parker, a genial millionaire oil company executive, readily admitted afterward that his views on the bill were prejudiced by his own experience in divorce court. "My view is totally colored by that, just as the view of a person who's been happily married for 25 years is colored the other way, " said Parker.
For Del. Mary Marshall (D-Arlington), the legislators are often as much a victim of their class as of their sex, since many think of inheritance and divorce cases in terms of hefty estates -- which hardly applies to most women affected.
"Most of these gentlemen lawyers handle cases that involve a lot of money," she says. "What we describe they don't understand. It's not a sex problem, it's a problem between the rich and the not-so-rich."
Some veteran women legislators also say that until recently part of the problem lay with southern women's attitudes toward themselves. "The Southern Belle -- the dainty magnolia blossom -- says a lot about the image that southern women have put forth," says Hailey. "They've acted as though it was beneath their dignity to get involved in politics." The defeat of the ERA in Virginia this year for the ninth and probably final time was a bitter pill for women activists, but even more galling were the circumstances of its death. Sen. Nathan Miller (R-Rockingham) left town on a business trip to avoid a 20-to-20 tie vote that would have been broken in the amendment's favor by Democratic Lt. Gov. Richard Davis.
Ironically, Hailey and other women legislators claim some modest progress on other fronts this year.
The 11 women in the General Assembly meet weekly to monitor bills of interest to women and coordinate their lobbying efforts. With ERA behind them, they have managed to move forward bills that would set criteria for establishing paternity, give women a claim to property acquired by a couple during marriage and allow widows to inherit all of their husband's property. That bill would reverse current law that, in the 70 percent of inheritance cases where a spouse dies without a will, gives the surviving spouse only one-third of the property and leaves the rest to the children.
But for the state's more fervent activists, these small gains -- none of which have achieved final passage -- are hardly enough.
"I've been going back and forth to Richmond for eight years and I've seen very little in terms of constructive change," says Pamela McCoach, head of the women's commission. "We have to go back year after year and all that ever passes is so watered down and small that it's really little more than a baby step. It becomes increasingly discouraging and frustrating."
For McCoach and other activists, that frustration reached its peak last week when the Senate Education and Health Committee took up a measure to require doctors to inform women suffering from breast cancer of the full range of available treatments before undergoing surgery. The bill had been introduced by Del. Edythe C. Harrison (D-Norfolk), who calls the threat of radical mastectomies, "the fear of every woman."
The bill, patterned after similar statutes in California and Massachusetts, cleared the House of Delegates last month by a 99-to-1 vote, but quickly ran afoul of the state's medical establishment. The Virginia Medical Society, together with the heads of major hospitals, began what one lobbyist called a frantic campaign to dissuade the senators from encroaching on the traditional patient-doctor relationship.
"When somebody comes to a doctor and he has to say, 'I've got the worst possible news for you,' and then presents them with 80 pages of detail on treatment options , all you're doing is creating confusion," said Allen Goolsby, legal counsel for the medical society.
For an agonizing hour last week, women told their horror stories of unnecessary breast surgery. The 14 male senators seemed legitimately concerned, but in the end the doctors won out and the bill was killed.
"I thought it was ironic," said Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who supported the bill. "This is probably the biggest crisis that women will ever face in their lifetimes and here come 14 men who say, 'we know what's best for you.' "
With some of their other bills still alive, women activists in Virginia say they are not ready to give up hope on this year's session. But for women's commission chairman McCoach, the fate of the breast cancer bill typified the prevailing bias of the male-dominated legislature.
"The attitude you most often hear is, they don't want to be rash because they really love the women of Virginia and they really want to protect them," she said. "At this point, I'd settle for a little less love."