“The suffrage advocates in prison at Occoquan are political prisoners,” Alice Paul, author of the ERA, wrote in the Washington Times on Oct. 11, 1917, a few days before she was moved from a D.C. jail to the Virginia prison. “They are not recognized as such, and they will continue to fight for recognition as political prisoners in order that they may have the liberties and privileges accorded to persons who are locked up on account of their political faith.”
(Russian prisoners, the suffragists pointed out back then, were treated better than they were. Weird how the Russians keep popping up, right?)
The suffragists were tortured, beaten, given food crawling with maggots and force-fed through tubes rammed up their noses when they went on a hunger strike.
Continued picketing in front of the White House brought the arrest of 33 women from the National Woman’s Party, leading to the infamous Night of Terror on Nov. 14, 1917, when those women were beaten and tortured all night in the Northern Virginia prison by its male guards. The party’s co-founder, Lucy Burns, had her wrists cuffed high on the bars of her cell, so she had to stand all night. Some were beaten so badly, they were left for dead.
Abu Ghraib on the Occoquan.
So it’s a perfect, historic circle to see that Virginia now has a chance to make up for stifling and damaging the 100-year (and counting) march toward true equality under the Constitution.
House Joint Resolution No. 1 was filed in the Virginia legislature last Wednesday and is on the schedule for Tuesday. If it is ratified, Virginia will become the key 38th state needed to add the amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
There is a question, of course, about whether it’s too late — the 38 states needed didn’t all ratify before the 1982 deadline. The Justice Department issued a big no last week on the possibility of the ERA passing so long after the original deadline.
But plenty of activists and legal scholars say that’s up for debate. “This is one opinion, one memo,” said Kati Hornung, coordinator for the VARatifyERA campaign, who spoke to The Washington Post’s Patricia Sullivan outside the Virginia Capitol last week. “The Constitution is enduring.”
So you want to move on to the next (inevitable) question when it comes to the ERA: Do we even need it?
Isn’t there a 14th Amendment barring discrimination against anyone, and aren’t there enough laws on the books across the states to help stop discrimination?
Yes, we still need it; yes, there is a 14th Amendment (which proved ineffective in protecting women when they wanted to vote 100 years ago); and no, there is no law comprehensive enough to protect women across the country.
We can look at access to health care, discrimination at work, the staggering wage gap and how all this is related to the criminal underrepresentation of women in politics if you’re still wondering whether our nation continues to have a gender equality problem.
But since we started there, let’s go back to prisons for just one example.
The number of women being incarcerated is skyrocketing. It’s now eight times what it was in 1980, a rate of growth twice as high as that for men over that time, according to the Sentencing Project.
Most prisons, however, are designed for men, from facilities to programming.
In some states, male prisoners can get associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, while women have access to only associate’s degrees, according to Virginia Del. Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax), one of the ERA bill’s sponsors.
“The burgeoning number of incarcerated women shines a light on the need for new tools to adapt our systems to meet those needs,” Kory wrote in the Virginian-Pilot in 2018.
“The Equal Rights Amendment, if ratified, will prohibit governments and their jails and prisons from discriminating on the basis of sex. It will provide jails and prisons the foundation for adapting new standards required in the treatment of incarcerated women,” Kory wrote.
This time, however, will be different.
Virginia voters just gave the state its most female legislature in history — still only 29 percent female, but historic nevertheless.
And for the first time in 400 years, a woman — Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) — is the speaker of the House of Delegates.
By ratifying the ERA, Virginia can make good on all that nasty prison business from a century ago.
This year will also be the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.
And as much as people like those big anniversaries, Alice Paul offered her first draft of the ERA to Congress in 1923, and there is no way we should wait until 2023 for this one.
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