The "Women's Delegation" was closeted in a conference room here last week plotting strategy when one of its members said she feared the General Assembly might "mess around" with bills that could reverse recent hard-won reforms in Virginia's divorce laws.
"As long as we have a legislature, they're going to mess around with bills," said Sen. Evelyn M. Hailey (D-Norfolk), one of two women in the 40-member state Senate.
This year, because of the short legislative calendar and the lawmakers' preoccupation with budget deficits and the November elections, neither foes nor proponents of so-called "women's bills" are likely to do much legislative messing around.
Last year--several weeks after killing the Equal Rights Amendment for the ninth time--the conservative, overwhelmingly male legislature passed several laws giving women a greater share of property accumulated during a marriage. Their passage was regarded as a significant victory for the women legislators.
"We decided that this year we'd allow some time to go by and see how the laws are working," said Del. Dorothy S. McDiarmid (D-Fairfax), a member of the "Women's Delegation," a coalition of female legislators and women's rights activists that meets weekly to monitor bills and coordinate lobbying efforts.
Many of the bills the delegation is pushing this year are relatively minor measures. One would require men to pay for blood tests to determine paternity, while another would provide that jointly held accounts such as money market funds belong to both spouses. Only jointly held checking and savings accounts are covered under Virginia law.
Some delegation members say their agenda is relatively modest because they don't want to try the patience of their male colleagues.
"Some people around here feel they gave us too much last year," said Del. Gladys B. Keating (D-Fairfax), sponsor of the joint accounts bill. "I heard someone say the other day, 'They got everything else, why don't we just give them the kitchen sink?' "
The kitchen sink is all some women in Virginia say the state's lawmakers traditionally have allowed them. For years, they say, divorce laws have reflected the colonial attitude that women are property.
Some senior male legislators, stung by the memories of former wives they say took unfair advantage of them, have been loath to modernize Virginia's divorce laws. As a result, the women say, the state lags far behind some of its neighbors in statutes governing divorce, sexual assault and inheritance.
High on the delegation's wish list is a "no-fault" divorce bill that would permit a judge to grant a divorce on grounds that a marriage has irreparably broken down. Currently, state law requires that, except where couples have lived apart for six months or are formally separated, one party must prove fault in the form of adultery, cruelty or desertion.
Although 31 states have similar laws, Hailey acknowledged there is only a "glimmer of hope" the bill will pass. "In any case," she said, "we can plant the idea this year and plough the ground."
Leaders of the women's delegation say they are heartened by the fact that the number of people attending weekly 8 a.m. strategy meetings has tripled since it was founded three years ago.
Others say more men are championing "women's bills."
"After Gov. Charles S. Chuck Robb's election, women sort of came back into style," Del. Mary Marshall (D-Arlington) said. "This year, some people are putting in bills to show how supportive they are."
Marshall and others point to the pro-ERA statement released this week by House Majority Leader Thomas W. Moss Jr. (D-Norfolk) announcing he would support the ERA if the issue comes before the assembly again.
Moss, who survived a difficult primary last fall against former delegate Edythe C. Harrison, said: "In the past, I did not regard this issue to be of paramount importance. I am afraid this has subjected me to criticism that I am indifferent to the problems of women. In fact, my record of last session will show that I supported many women's issues that I did believe were of paramount importance . . . ."
Moss' support, of course, is belated for many Virginia ERA supporters. The proposed amendment died last summer. McDiarmid, the measure's chief sponsor here, has decided not to introduce a legislative resolution, which Moss agreed to co-sponsor, asking Congress to reconsider the ERA.
Despite recent apparent converts, such as Moss, and the progress women made last year, delegation leaders say they still have a long way to go.
"A funny thing happened on the way to the ERA," Hailey said. "We woke up and smelled the coffee. I'm glad to see more women involved politically instead of just letting Daddy do it."