Smeal, former president of the National Organization for Women and a leader in many other women’s organizations, has a depth of knowledge about women’s rights battles from the years that she has spent on the front lines.
Wednesday’s vote by both chambers of the Virginia legislature to ratify the amendment, she said, proves “overwhelming public support, but we now have a court battle ahead of us. . . . We understand this is an important step but it is not yet the end.”
Political and legal hurdles remain over whether the ERA’s 1982 ratification deadline still applies and over a Department of Justice opinion issued last week that said that the national archivist should not record Virginia’s ratification because of that deadline. Five states that ratified the ERA years ago have withdrawn their ratifications, and no federal court has conclusively ruled whether that is legal, and how it impacts Virginia’s quest to become the final ratification required for the amendment to take effect.
Smeal was ready to go into detail about why feminists think they have the upper hand on those issues, but Wednesday was a day for celebration.
“How sweet it is! The VA Senate just passed 28-12 the ERA! ERA supporters packed the galleries,” she tweeted. “Let the celebration begin. #ERANow #VAmakes38”
From Paris, Elizabeth Holtzman, a former Democratic member of Congress from New York who introduced the 1979 bill that extended the ERA’s ratification deadline, exulted as well.
“It’s been a long time coming, far too long,” she said. “You can’t stop the progress of freedom, liberty and equality. You might try to detour it, you might try to block it, but in the end it’s going to win.”
Groups of ERA advocates from several states celebrated in the halls of the Virginia Capitol after the votes — cheering, crying and recording video messages for supporters who couldn’t be there. Many had spent several days in Richmond, carrying signs and encouraging lawmakers to vote “Yes” as they walked between meetings.
“It’s taken us 100 years to get here, but we’re here, so I feel satisfied,” said Eileen Davis, who has spent years leading the charge for the ERA in Richmond. She is also the mother of U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.). “This is for our daughters and granddaughters and people who came before us. This is a victory for all of them.”
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), the lead House sponsor of the ERA in Congress who is trying to remove the ratification deadline, said in a statement that the Virginia vote Wednesday was “truly exhilarating.”
“When I look at the issues that policymakers have debated for many years, the reasons why we need the ERA become even more apparent,” her statement said. “A constitutional amendment is forever. It cannot be repealed, rolled back or expire. It is not subject to the whims of who controls Congress, a statehouse, or the White House.”
Women have been fighting for and against the ERA since 1923, just three years after women won the right to vote with the 19th Amendment. Suffragist Alice Paul drafted the amendment that was introduced in Congress, and originally named it after 19th-century suffragist Lucretia Mott.
It failed year after year until 1972, when it passed and was sent to the states. Three-quarters of the 50 states were required to ratify it before it could be adopted.
Anne Schlafly Cori, president of the Eagle Forum and daughter of renowned anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly, denied the importance of Virginia’s vote.
“If it’s illegal, there’s no impact,” she said. “Time has not made [the ERA] any better. The ERA never had anything to do with women. . . . It’s been so long since we’ve had a public conversation about [the ERA] that people say yes, they’re for it. But the more they learn about it, the less they like it.”
Smeal, who remembers when opponents argued that women didn’t need equal pay because they were not supporting families but working for “pin money,” joked that today’s feminists don’t even know what that term means (a small sum for inessential spending).
She said feminists will build “a massive national campaign” to reinforce support for the ERA and establish state-level ERAs in those that don’t already have them.
“We are not taking anything for granted,” Smeal said, crediting younger activists with taking up the mantle of leadership. “This new generation — they were not going to be denied.”
Gregory S. Schneider contributed to this report.