The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Equal Rights Amendment has languished for decades. Virginia must put it over the top.

Women’s rights activists push for the ratification of Equal Rights Amendment in Richmond in February. (Patricia Sullivan/The Washington Post)

The timeline for most constitutional amendments is about two years.

It took the United States a little more than a year to ban alcohol in 1919.

But — whoopsie, nevermind — just 288 days to bring it back during the Great Depression. (Just in time for Happy Holiday hot toddies, December 1933.)

Lowering the voting age to 18? Sailed through in 100 days. Didn’t even last the whole spring of 1971.

But the Equal Rights Amendment, a simple rule to give the majority of this nation’s population equal protection under the U.S. Constitution, has been futzed, fiddled with and fought over for 95 years.

I’ll say it again. We’re at year 95 of trying to get women equal billing in the U.S. Constitution.

“I never really thought it would take this long,” said Sonia Pressman Fuentes, who is 90 and still in the fight.

She’s been campaigning for equal rights for 55 years. She actually knew Alice Paul, the woman who wrote the original Equal Rights Amendment and introduced it to Congress in 1923. Fuentes was also one of the founders of the National Organization for Women.

Grandma Flanagan went to prison so women could vote

And she can’t believe we’re still having this conversation.

“It’s still important for women to be part of the Constitution,” Fuentes said, from her command center in Sarasota, Fla., where she did not go to retire, but rather to continue the fight with speeches, newsletters and activism.

Why are we talking about this now?

Because Virginia — where women just responded to a decade-long legislative assault on their bodies and their rights with a revamped state legislature and a lead role in giving Democrats a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives — may be the state to put this baby back in play.

The ERA was introduced in Congress three years after women won the right to vote in 1920. It went nowhere and withered.

Fast-forward half a century past wars and June Cleaver and Miss America protests. In 1972, the amendment was reintroduced into Congress, and this time it passed. It made sense in its simplicity: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” it said.

What obstacles are left for the ERA?

And a whole bunch of states said “right on” and ratified it.

Then along came a personality with a froth of hair, a populist message, a bizarre obsession with bathrooms: Phyllis Schlafly.

“She’s the one who dealt it a death blow,” Fuentes said.

Schlafly, the super-conservative woman who convinced her female followers to wear pink and deliver loads of baked goods to state politicians, derailed the amendment. She gave fiery speeches scaring men and women about what the ERA could do. She told them it would backfire on women, sending them into war and making them use unisex bathrooms. What is it with conservatives and bathrooms?

Mighty male leaders were apparently powerless over cakes and pies, and a few states rescinded their ratification of the amendment, putting the two-thirds needed out of reach for three decades.

Until this spring. Fueled by the #MeToo movement and the wave of women running for office — Illinois switched the lights back on, and the ERA hummed back into action with a ratification vote from the land of Lincoln.

That makes 37 states that have ratified it, one short of the 38 an amendment needs to pass. Enter Virginia, where women are on fire. They are fed up, disgusted and empowered.

Women voting in Virginia were like a Taylor Swift revenge song.

Activists tried to get Virginia to make history this year, filling the state Capitol and shouting “Shame, shame!” and singing “We Shall Overcome” in an effort to get the ERA moving, according to reporting by The Washington Post’s Patricia Sullivan.

It died, yet again, in that male-dominated chamber.

But guess what? That was before the midterm elections, when women took revenge at the polls. Suddenly, men are starting to listen.

This time, it’s a Republican man, state Sen. Glen H. Sturtevant Jr., who is pushing for Virginia to move on the ERA so the suburban woman juggernaut in his district won’t hate him out of office.

He even wants to get on the ERA bus tour in what one strategist described to my Post colleagues on the condition of anonymity as a GOP “adapt or die” approach.

Nice. Like the roses from a bad boyfriend trying to get his lady back.

Not sure the Old Dominion’s women will fall for the Republican makeover. But Fuentes, who had seen a thing or two in her years as a lawyer in D.C., said she probably won’t be retiring anytime soon.

“There is still a lot of work to be done,” she said. “Although I do have to say that I feel a little bit sorry for the men. Women have been fighting all along, we’re used to change. But now things are changing for men, and this is new for them.”

Even if Virginia ratifies the ERA, there’s another hurdle: The amendment’s ratification deadline from back in the ’80s could kill this effort.

It shouldn’t. Women’s rights have languished long enough.

It took the country 203 years to pass the 27th Amendment, which prevents members of Congress from voting to give themselves a raise.

You better believe that women aren’t going to wait that long, though.

Twitter: @petulad

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