Shouting “Shame, shame!” and singing “We Shall Overcome,” more than 100 women’s rights activists from across Virginia poured into the state Capitol on Friday to try to force the legislature to take action on the federal Equal Rights Amendment.
Dressed in period costumes and wearing colorful silk banners demanding “ERA 2018,” advocates hoped this year’s record number of female lawmakers, combined with the momentum of the #MeToo movement, would propel the amendment forward in Virginia — bringing the national effort just one shy of the 38 states needed for ratification.
But their efforts failed in the GOP-controlled legislature. One House committee refused to take up the matter, while a Senate panel defeated it 9 to 5, with all the no votes cast by men.
Both committee chairmen, Sen. Ryan T. McDougle (R- Hanover) and Del. Mark L. Cole (R-Spotsylvania), cited a technical reason for their opposition. They said the effort to seek ratification for the ERA was improper because the congressional deadline expired in 1982. Advocates argue that Congress could overturn or extend that deadline, and that the General Assembly has a responsibility to take a stand on the proposal.
Activists’ efforts won them a “show of hands” vote in the Senate Rules Committee after two Fairfax Democrats, Sen. Janet D. Howell and Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, interceded when McDougle said he would hold only a voice vote on ratification. The vote failed 9 to 5, with Republican Sens. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (James City), Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (Augusta), Stephen D. Newman (Bedford), Frank M. Ruff Jr. (Mecklenburg), Frank W. Wagner (Virginia Beach), Mark D. Obenshain (Rockingham), William M. Stanley Jr. (Franklin), Charles W. Carrico Sr. (Grayson) and Bryce E. Reeves (Spotsylvania) voting no.
Sens. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier), Richard H. Stuart (R-Stafford) and Mamie E. Locke (D-Hampton) joined Howell and Saslaw on the losing side.
Introduced 95 years ago by suffragist Alice Paul, the ERA would bar discrimination on account of sex.
McDougle told the capacity crowd that an official at the National Archives and Records Administration advised him that the ERA is a “failed amendment” and therefore improper for the General Assembly to vote on it.
Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), sponsor of the Senate bill, argued that the archivist does not decide law. He pointed to an informal advisory from the state attorney general’s office that said Congress has the power to extend the ratification deadline. Even without an extension, it is possible that the legislature’s ratification could be found valid, depending on future congressional action, he said.
When McDougle tried to hold one vote on several measures including the ERA bill, Howell quickly separated the ERA vote. McDougle said it would be a voice vote only, with no individual votes recorded. The room immediately erupted with shouts and singing until McDougle agreed to ask for a show of hands.
Moments later, the same crowd crossed the Capitol hallway where a House committee was about to convene. Republican leaders of that panel decided against holding hearings on any of the three nearly identical ERA-ratification bills submitted this year.
The protesters sat quietly through about 20 minutes of other business, holding up preprinted signs that read “Republican who remembers when this was a Republican ideal” and “Dads 4 Daughters.”
Then Del. Sam Rasoul (D-
Roanoke) requested that one of the ERA bills be added to the hearing. After a brief statement by him and Pat Fishback, a member of the League of Women Voters who has been working for the ERA for 40 years, Cole ruled the motion out of order because of the expired congressional deadline.
Again, the crowd shouted its dismay and warned that they would remember the vote at the polls.
“Every year we’ve made more and more progress because of these wonderful activists,” Rasoul said later. “They should keep it up.”
Five times in the past seven years, the Virginia Senate passed the ERA, but each time it languished in the House. This year, ERA activists bought three billboards on Interstate 95 pressing their case, took out newspaper ads and mailed 10,000 handwritten postcards.
“We know the public interest is there, but the leadership in the legislature is choosing to ignore it,” said Eileen Davis, founder of Women Matter, one of myriad feminist organizations pushing for a vote. “Virginia has a state-level ERA, but it has never ratified the federal ERA, which means we’re at odds with our own values.”
Congress passed the ERA in 1972 and sent it to the states for ratification. To be adopted, 38 of the 50 states needed to approve the measure by 1982, Congress said. At that time, only 35 states had ratified it, so the amendment never made it into the Constitution. Nevada ratified it last year, bringing the total to 36.
Activists dispute the notion that because the 1982 deadline has passed, the issue is dead. Numerous constitutional experts believe that Congress could extend the deadline again, even after a generation-long lapse. Two bills have been introduced in Congress by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) to eliminate the deadline for ratification.
If that legislation passes, as long as 38 states ratify the amendment at any point, it would become part of the Constitution. Five states have voted to rescind their previous ratification votes, but it’s unclear whether that would affect the ratification tally.
Activists also noted that the 27th Amendment, which bars Congress from voting on its own pay raises, was ratified 202 years after it was first introduced. No ratification deadline was set for that measure.
Surovell and Del. Alfonso H. Lopez (D-Arlington), who sponsored one of the House bills, cited the influence of their mothers, who took them to ERA rallies when they were children, and called the ERA “unfinished family business.”
Republican Del. Roxann L. Robinson (Chesterfield), sponsored another of the House ERA bills, as did Fairfax Democrat Kaye Kory.
“Whatever resistance there may be, it’s quiet obstruction, not loud or in your face,” said Sen. Jennifer T. Wexton (D-
Loudoun), chief co-sponsor of the Senate ERA bill. “One thing people saw in the 2017 election is the power of women. No one wants to cross them overtly.”
“Women are pretty upset, and they’re voting, and elected officials are paying attention to that,” Surovell said. “Elected officials ignore angry women at their peril.”