The Virginia legislature, which earlier this year let the Equal Rights Amendment go down to defeat, surprised advocates of women's rights this week by approving a series of bills that will give wives and widows a greater share of property accumulated during a marriage.
"It's just terrific," said an elated Del. Mary Marshall (D-Arlington), after the House passed yet another so-called women's bill. "We have never had such a good year. ERA did go down but a lot of the things that ERA meant to accomplish have gone through."
The string of victories began two days ago when the House passed, 82 to 17, a bill that would divide ownership of a married couple's joint bank account down the middle. That measure, sponsored by Sen. Wiley Mitchell (R-Alexandria), had run into opposition from some male legislators who said they felt their former wives had taken advantage of them in divorce settlements.
Today, the House also approved a long-sought reform of the state's inheritance law which, in cases where a spouse dies without a will, grants a widow or widower only one-third of the property, with the rest going to the children. The bill, passed 62 to 27, would leave all property to the surviving spouse, except in cases where the dead spouse had children from an earlier marriage.
"It's very significant," said Sen. Evelyn Hailey (D-Norfolk), who has supported the bill for three years. "What we are saying here again is that marriage partners are equal, that marriage is in fact a partnership."
When her bill was before the Senate, Hailey was met with a torrent of rhetoric from colleagues who insisted on the Virginia tradition that property be handed down from generation to generation, always staying within one family.
But on this issue, as on other women's bills, Hailey argued that most people don't have large estates and that those who do make a will. She also noted that more than 90 percent of the married couples who file wills in Virginia leave their property to each other.
Also today, the Senate passed, with two minor amendments, a major reform of Virginia divorce laws which for the first time establishes the principle of marital, or joint, property acquired by a couple during their marriage.
Although not as far-reaching as some women's groups had sought, the marital property bill, sponsored by Del. J. Samuel Glasscock (D-Suffolk), marks the first successful attempt to change Virginia's concept of property held separately during a marriage.
"Virginia will no longer be the dumping ground for divorced military wives," said Marshall. "Women were here testifying that Virginia divorce laws are known throughout the services: Men get themselves assigned to Virginia to get themselves divorced."