It’s 2019, a surge of women just won election to Congress and the Virginia legislature, and it looks like the Equal Rights Amendment may be stopped dead in its tracks again.
By a woman. Again.
Meet the new Phyllis Schlafly: Victoria Cobb, who says she achieved all her success before reaching her 40th birthday without help from any amendment, so the rest of American women don’t need it, either.
“I’m a third-generation opponent of the ERA, actually,” she told me, when I asked her if she’s today’s Schlafly, the ultraconservative woman who led the charge in derailing the amendment in the 1970s by convincing America that women would be drafted into combat and toilets would all be unisex if the amendment passed.
The ERA, first written 95 years ago, regained new momentum in this #MeToo era after years of dormancy. And Virginia was poised to become the 38th state to ratify it, filling in that three-quarters majority of states required for it to become official. In Richmond, the GOP-led Senate passed the ERA bill earlier this month. And celebrities, lawmakers and activists were touting its revival on Capitol Hill in Washington.
But then a tiny subcommittee in Richmond — the House Privileges and Elections subcommittee — voted along party lines to block the amendment from reaching the House floor after heavy lobbying from Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia. (Among the yes votes were two men, by the way. Yay, men!)
After that subcommittee quash last Tuesday, Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax), one of the two men on that subcommittee to vote yes, tried to introduce it to the full House Privileges and Elections Committee anyhow on Friday. That was defeated by a 12-to-10 vote along party lines.
Cobb’s crusade was helped along by that subcommittee’s chair, the equally stunning and storybook-perfect Del. Margaret B. Ransone (R-Westmoreland).
Ransone also presents herself as the strong, capable “mother, wife, successful businesswoman” on her website who doesn’t need any darn amendment to protect her in the workplace or home or public space.
Except, of course, her powerful place in the world of business is her family’s oyster company, where she has worked most of her adult life. Good thing there’s no sexual harassment or gender discrimination there, right?
I asked Ransone several times to chat or even email with me about her opposition to the amendment and her frustration with the women who support it. But she said she was too busy.
Cobb, who lives in Richmond with her husband and four kids, made time, and we had a wonderful talk, laughing about our children and the demands of the working-mom life. And how absolutely lucky we are and how rarefied our privileged position in American society is.
Yet that’s the part she’s neglecting in her campaign to create an America in her image.
Cobb, the president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, is from a lovely suburb of Philadelphia, where she went to a private Christian school, played field hockey, learned to work against the ERA from her doting grandmother, and found her passion for fighting abortion rights when she was in sixth grade.
Her life has not included single motherhood while working the swing shift at a diner, the boss who grabs your butt and will cut your hours if you resist, a pregnancy that could kill you and leave your four children motherless, parents who kicked you out, or a husband who left and skipped child support.
No, in fact, her lawyer husband, Matt Cobb, was appointed Virginia’s deputy secretary of health and human resources in 2010, where he played a role in regulating commonwealth abortion providers before leaving for private practice specializing in health-care issues.
In fact, Cobb pegs most of her anti-ERA crusade on abortion, convincing folks that somehow, if women were to finally be included in the constitution, it would mean all kinds of public money would be funding abortion.
Um, no. That’s not the goal of ERA.
We can consult a legendary conservative Supreme Court justice for the truth that women’s equality is not explicitly protected in the constitution or in the 14th Amendment.
“Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t,” the late justice Antonin Scalia said in a 2010 interview with California Lawyer magazine.
Here’s the main problem with someone like Cobb — and her enabler in the hijacking of this amendment, Ransone — campaigning against this change in the living document of American democracy.
These women occupy a very privileged place in American society, and they hold up their very tidy lives as proof that the ERA is unnecessary.
“I feel included in the Constitution,” said Cobb, who often touts her own success as proof that women don’t need a constitutional amendment to be successful. “We aren’t insisting that we be treated like victims,” she told me.
She said her grandmother was a great supporter of the bootstrap ethos of women like Schlafly, the I’m-not-a-feminist brand of feminism that boldly insists that women can do anything they set their minds to doing.
“Did my grandmother, while opposing the ERA, envision that I would someday lead an organization, earning the same pay as my male colleagues, while having four children with associated maternity leave and a permanent family-friendly schedule? Probably not. But did I do it without the ERA? Yes, I did,” she said in an editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch last year.
But plenty of women don’t have her advantages, or the advantages that many white, middle-class women in stable families and marriages have.
Religion is a big part of conservative women’s politics and activism. When it comes to the protections that the Equal Rights Amendment would provide, perhaps they’d consider this perspective:
There, but for the grace of God, go I.