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Virginia House panel nixes ERA bills, in a major blow for feminist groups

Virginia Del. Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (D-Prince William) cheers on Equal Rights Amendment advocates outside the Capitol in Richmond.
Virginia Del. Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (D-Prince William) cheers on Equal Rights Amendment advocates outside the Capitol in Richmond. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

RICHMOND — Legislation to make Virginia the 38th state to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment failed to clear a GOP-controlled House subcommittee Tuesday, a blow to advocates who thought they had enough Republicans — and momentum — on their side.

The vote might not be the last word in the long-running battle over the amendment, which would enshrine in the Constitution a prohibition on discrimination based on sex. ERA supporters vowed to try again with the full committee, which could choose to resurrect the legislation when it meets Friday.

Those in favor of the legislation believe it could win approval in Richmond if given a chance this year, with Democrats closing in on control of the legislature and every lawmaker up for reelection in November. Ratification by 38 states would be required for the amendment to become law, although opponents note that the federal deadline for passage expired years ago.

“We’re not out of moves,” said Eileen Davis, founder of Women-Matter, one of many feminist organizations pushing for a vote. “And if they continue to stonewall, it’s at their own peril.”

Critics of the amendment are not letting down their guard either, however.

“When you deal with opposition that use any and all methods to force their issue, including resurrecting a dead amendment, you take no victory for granted,” said Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia. She promised to fight any efforts to revive the four bills voted down Tuesday.

A majority of lawmakers in both the House and the Senate — both narrowly controlled by Republicans — signed on as sponsors of ERA bills this year. The same was true last year, but that legislation never got out of committee and to a floor vote in either chamber.

ERA advocates were more hopeful this year, with Republicans desperate to win back suburban women, who in recent election cycles have deserted the party in droves.

What hurdles are left for the ERA? Virginia’s legislature — and other obstacles, too.

An ERA bill sponsored by Sen. Glen H. Sturtevant Jr. (R-Richmond) passed the full Senate last week, with seven Republicans joining Democrats on a 26-to-14 vote.

Two Republican delegates, Christopher P. Stolle (Virginia Beach) and Roxann L. Robinson (Chesterfield) signed on as sponsors, and a third, David E. Yancey (Newport News), supported it in a floor speech this week.

At the House subcommittee hearing Tuesday, Sturtevant said his bill supported “a fundamental American value” of “treating people equally based on their immutable characteristics.” Three House Democrats also presented bills of their own.

But opponents came out in force, arguing that passage of the ERA would make it harder to limit abortions and illegal to separate the sexes in bathrooms, college dormitories and school sports — something supporters dispute.

Supporters also contend that Congress could extend the deadline for passage of the amendment if enough states have ratified it.

All four Republicans on Subcommittee No. 1 of the House Privileges and Elections Committee voted to kill the ERA bills Tuesday at a packed early-morning hearing, while the two Democrats on the subcommittee — Dels. Mark D. Sickles (Fairfax) and Schuyler T. VanValkenburg (Henrico) — voted to advance them.

The subcommittee’s vote is technically a recommendation to the full panel, which typically would not bring up anything the subcommittee rejects for another vote or hearing.

But Sickles and VanValkenburg expressed hope that the full committee will revive the legislation.

“Everything can be heard if the chairman agrees to hear it,” Sickles said. “My assumption is, with the attention and energy behind this, that we will hear it at full committee on Friday, where we’ll need 12 votes to pass it out.”

After midterms, Va. Republicans look for way forward, and Democrats try to build on gains

Cobb said it would be “unusual for the committee to have a duplicative hearing, because it invalidates the time and attention the bill already received.”

None of the 12 Republicans on the 22-member committee has signed on as a sponsor of the ERA legislation this year.

Emotions ran high at Tuesday’s hearing, with supporters calling out “Shame!” after the bills failed.

“We don’t want special treatment. We just want to be in the Constitution . . . just like everybody else,” Davis, who has been pushing for the amendment for over 10 years, told reporters afterward.

Hours later on the House floor, subcommittee Chairwoman Margaret B. Ransone (R-Westmoreland) called the hearing “the most disappointing and discouraging event I have ever experienced during my time in this body.”

She said women covered their daughters’ ears rather than let them hear her express a conservative woman’s point of view.

“What I saw this morning truly broke my heart,” Ransone said. She noted her own success in reaching the House of Delegates and that of other women in professional jobs, as well as mothers who run households.

What message had she wanted to send girls at the hearing?

“With hard work and determination and a big heart, nothing is going to stop you either,” she said.

Gregory S. Schneider contributed to this report.