The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She helped get the ERA ratified in Virginia. Now, she is taking her campaign across America.

Kati Hornung thinks the Equal Rights Amendment will be accepted as law if enough ordinary Americans support it

Kati Hornung, left, works with graphic designer Makeeda Jordan at a print shop Hornung owns in Richmond on Feb. 7. She has been working to stoke support for the Equal Rights Amendment since before Virginia in 2020 became the 38th state to ratify the measure. (Julia Rendleman/The Washington Post)

A few years ago, Kati Hornung made her family a promise: As soon as Virginia ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, she’d be done. She’d stay home. She’d find a job that paid, and she’d save up enough to cover college for her son and daughter.

Hornung had worked throughout nearly the entire Trump presidency — free — to add the amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She’d attended rallies. She’d carted her kids around Virginia in a van she’d turned into an ice cream truck, and she’d spent three legislative sessions in a row asking lawmakers to ratify the measure, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.

When Hornung and a group of other moms prevailed in January 2020, she thought she’d be able to keep her promise. Virginia was the 38th state to approve the ERA. According to Article 5 of the Constitution, which says Congress can add an amendment once three-fourths of the states ratify it, the ERA was in.

The Virginia House of Delegates voted to approve the Equal Rights Amendment on Jan. 15, providing legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. (Video: Danica Roem via Storyful, Photo: AP/Danica Roem via Storyful)

Instead, very little happened. Journalists wrote up wonky dispatches, and Virginians marched in the streets, but Congress didn’t announce the new amendment, and the archivist of the United States declined to certify it.

But the ERA may be gaining some momentum. A handful of female lawmakers who have long tried to add the amendment introduced another resolution on Jan. 27, the anniversary of Virginia’s ratification. That same day, President Biden called on Congress to “enshrine the principle of gender equality in the Constitution.”

Yet, Hornung has decided she cannot wait on the powers that be. She has told her family that she needs a bit more time before she can stay home for good. If the Equal Rights Amendment is going to join the Constitution, Hornung must first do across the country what she did in Virginia. She must persuade everyday people to champion the amendment.

‘We haven’t fixed that yet’

In the beginning, Hornung thought of herself as just a mom. She was home-schooling her children in rural Virginia, and one day in 2017, after they’d studied the Declaration of Independence, her then-11-year-old son, Kal, rushed into the kitchen.

“Mom,” he said. “You know, Thomas Jefferson didn’t even mean all men when he said, ‘All men are created equal,’ and we know he didn’t mean women. Have they fixed that yet?”

Hornung knew that suffragists had tried in 1923 to add an amendment granting men and women equal rights. She’d learned in college that Congress waited until 1972 to pass it, then gave states a seven-year deadline to ratify. Thirty-five states did, but when the deadline came, the effort fell three short.

Opponents, led by conservative Phyllis Schlafly, argued that the amendment would take away a woman’s right to privacy in public restrooms and other facilities. It also might force them to register for the draft. Congress pushed the deadline to 1982, but no other state legislatures ratified the amendment, and some even rescinded their approvals. When the second deadline passed, many assumed the issue was dead.

Schlafly's Gala Goodbye to ERA

“Uh, no,” Hornung told her son. “We haven’t fixed that yet.”

Kal looked up, slack-jawed.

“What are we going to do about that?” he asked.

A whole generation grew up barely thinking of the ERA, but Hornung knew that some had begun to take up the cause again after Donald Trump was elected. Illinois and Nevada were working to ratify it, and a nurse in Richmond was holding pro-ERA rallies across Virginia. Hornung didn’t think of herself as the rallying type, but she decided she’d take Kal and his sister, Zoe. If nothing else, they could count it as a home-school lesson.

At the rally, Eileen Davis explained that the ERA was not dead. The Constitution doesn’t mention deadlines, and 202 years passed before the 27th Amendment garnered enough states’ approval to add it to the Constitution. The deadline Congress set for the ERA was only listed in the preamble, not in the text of the amendment.

Only 15 or 20 people attended that rally. It was so small, Hornung said, that a state senator walked by and laughed, but as Kal and Zoe painted signs, Hornung thought back on her own life. She’d grown up in Fargo, N.D., with three brothers, and as a kid, she’d always felt she had to fight to be seen as equal. Her parents made her do the dishes and the ironing, gendered chores her brothers never had to do. She moved to Virginia for college, and she felt relatively equal to her male classmates, but when she entered the workforce as a certified public accountant, she found that disparities remained. After she’d worked her way up to manager, she learned that the men she supervised earned thousands of dollars more per year than she did.

“I knew this world was not perfect,” she said. “I just wasn’t out in the streets fighting for anything at the time. I was just experiencing all the inequities and trying to live my life.”

The rally didn’t radicalize Hornung, but her kids enjoyed it, so they attended another one, and soon they were part of Davis’s movement. Hornung figured she’d follow along as Davis led, but in 2018, Davis pulled Hornung aside and told her that the campaign needed new leadership. Someone younger. Someone like Hornung.

A full table

Hornung was in her mid-40s when Davis asked her to lead the push, but most advocates were older. A Michigan woman was in her late 80s, and others had passed away in their mid-90s, still fighting for the ERA’s passage. Davis herself was in her mid-60s and had already spent more than a decade trying to persuade Virginia lawmakers to ratify it. The Virginia Senate approved pro-ERA bills in 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016, but they died in the House each time.

Opponents still fear the possibility of nonsegregated bathrooms, and they argue that the amendment might prohibit states from restricting access to abortion. Still, Hornung says the ERA is a nonpartisan issue. She describes herself as “from a conservative background,” and she worked with avowed liberals and antiabortion conservatives to lobby lawmakers in late 2017 and early 2018. The effort didn’t work: A House committee refused to take up the matter, and a Senate panel defeated it 9 to 5. Men cast all of the “no” votes.

“That’s when I shifted,” Hornung said. “I was like, ‘Okay, we’re not going to waste our time talking to those guys anymore. We’re going to start building a huge crescendo of voices calling for this.' ”

First, she teamed up with members of the Black sororities Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Kappa Alpha. Next, she recruited Liza Mickens, a young woman whose great-great-grandmother, Maggie Walker, was the first Black woman to charter a bank. Walker fought for suffrage in the early 1900s, and when Hornung, who is White, called to talk to Mickens, they agreed no fight for equality would be complete without Black women at its forefront.

“That is her biggest thing,” Mickens said. “Kati brought me on to really make sure that the story is complete and that we are seeing representation. What I admire the most about her is she doesn’t see the table as full unless everybody is there.”

Mickens was a senior at James Madison University, so she began by talking to her classmates in the dorms and college cafeteria.

“It was really incredible to open the eyes of all of my friends,” Mickens said. “It was always, ‘I had no idea that this wasn’t a part of our Constitution already. I had no idea that it’s taken this long to get to this point.' ”

While Mickens reached out to classmates and professors, Hornung planned other efforts. Every time a state politician held a town hall, she or someone else attended and asked about the ERA. Some supporters wrote letters, and Hornung outfitted an old sprinter van with deep freezers and ice cream she’d bought at Costco, then drove to college campuses and handed out treats and information about the measure.

When Hornung first started, few Republican lawmakers supported the ERA. But she found that most Virginians supported the idea of equality. They just needed to learn to champion it.

“What makes it possible for people to work in a bipartisan manner is when all of their constituents are really behind a topic,” Hornung said. “We just made a great big ruckus at the populist people level. By making that big ruckus, then all of a sudden the politicians were like, ‘Oh yeah, I support this. This is a great idea. Let’s get it done.’ ”

When an ERA bill again reached the legislature in 2020, dozens of Republicans voted against it. But Hornung and others had persuaded enough people. In late January, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify.

One problem remained, though. Earlier that month, the U.S. Justice Department had concluded that Virginia’s efforts were too late. Then-Assistant Attorney General Steven A. Engel ruled that states could no longer approve the ERA.

“Because Congress lawfully conditioned the States’ ratification of the ERA upon a deadline,” Engel wrote in a January 2020 memo, “and because the deadline expired, the proposed amendment has necessarily failed.”

Fighting ‘inertia’

In his memo, Engel noted that some say Congress has the power to rescind the deadline or start anew. U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) has been trying for ages to persuade her colleagues to remove the deadline.

Speier considers the ERA to have innumerable practical applications. It would ensure women earn equal pay and pregnancy accommodations, and it would give lawmakers the power to stop what she calls “the pink tax” — unnecessary upcharges on “female” versions of products. Everything including diapers and deodorant costs more when it’s marketed to girls or women. If the Constitution included an Equal Rights Amendment, companies wouldn’t be allowed to charge extra.

The congresswoman has introduced legislation to repeal the deadline at least a half-dozen times, but it has never made it out of the Senate.

“The problem we have is inertia,” Speier said. “The problem we have is that people already think it’s in the Constitution and are surprised to find out that it’s not.”

Last month, Speier and Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) introduced yet another resolution aimed at passing the ERA. Speier didn’t know Hornung personally, but she was pleased to learn that Hornung plans to mobilize people across the country. In March, Hornung and Mickens will kick off their national efforts with an art show in Oakland, Calif. Most of the ERA iconography dates back to the 1970s, and Hornung wanted to update it with work by a younger and more diverse group of artists. After the show, Hornung plans to wrap an RV in prints of the new work, then drive the vehicle around the country. She’ll host virtual training sessions in April to teach advocates how to engage their friends and lawmakers.

The same week Speier and Maloney introduced their resolution, Davis and a group of old-timers drove up to D.C. to celebrate in Lafayette Square.

Hornung didn’t go with them. She was getting over covid, and besides, she’d begun trying to keep her promise to her family. She now runs a print shop in Richmond. She initially bought it to earn some income and give former stay-at-home moms a chance at employment, but she has discovered that the business can bolster her activism, too. If the push to ratify is going to go national, Hornung will need to print a lot of materials.

And so, on the day that Davis and others rallied across from the White House, Hornung was at her shop printing up pocket constitutions. Unlike the version that hangs in the National Archives, Hornung’s edition has 28 amendments.