The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nevada is about to be the first state in more than three decades to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment

Gloria Steinem of the National Organization for Women attends an Equal Right Amendment rally outside the White House Saturday,July 4, 1981 in Washington. (AP Photo/Scott Applewhite)

Nevada is about to do something no state has done in three-and-a-half decades: Ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

Dusting off a decades-old debate about whether to enshrine women's rights in the Constitution is of questionable value to the amendment's prospects, say analysts. But that doesn't mean it's a meaningless gesture, and its revival certainly says a lot about the women's rights movement in 2017.

Even if Nevada becomes the 36th state to ratify the amendment, its entry into the Constitution is a loooong shot. The deadline to ratify the amendment ended long ago — in 1982 to be exact. And even if Congress reopened it, it's not clear any other state is seriously interested in playing along.

Republicans, who have have traditionally been opposed to the amendment, control a majority of state governments and Congress.

But the fact that we're even talking about the Equal Rights Amendment decades after it was left for dead underscores the somewhat-surprising political activism of women and their allies across the country right now,  said Debbie Walsh, director of the nonpartisan Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. Women are getting involved politically in a way the nation hasn't seen since the feminism movement of the '60s and '70s, she added.

Why can't women just be themselves when they run for office?

Women's marches crowded cities across the world the day after President Trump's inauguration. Abortion-advocate political groups like Emily's List fielded hundreds of requests from wannabee candidates. The Center for American Women in Politics's own nonpartisan campaign training program has been overwhelmed by applicants – "We had to find a bigger venue for the program,"Walsh said.

Fairly or not, many women, especially on the left, feel like their rights could be under attack now that Washington is controlled by Republicans who are opposed to abortion and want to cut off funding for  national women's health care clinic Planned Parenthood.

Three states have never sent a woman to Congress. Ever.

What's fascinating is that this revival of female activism came in a very roundabout way. The first female major-party nominee for president lost, after all.

"The morning after the 2016 election, I was concerned that women might crawl under the bed sheets and just try to recover," Walsh said. "But here is this real sense that women can't sit on the sidelines. I think they've gotten in a different kind of way that elections have consequences and therefore they have to step up."

Which brings us back to Nevada and Democrats' attempts to revive the Equal Rights Amendment.

Nevada Democrats swam against the Republican tide this November and managed to recapture both state legislative chambers. Its leaders now view their state  -- one of just 14 where Democrats control the state legislature -- as a counterweight to a conservative Washington.

"I get giddy every time I think about the fact we have such a great opportunity in this state," Nevada Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford (D) told The Fix in January.

Outside Washington, the Democratic resistance to Donald Trump is building

Passing the Equal Rights Amendment is their first headline-grabbing move.

A quick history/civics recap: Changing the Constitution is one of the most difficult things in all of governing, but Equal Rights Amendment supporters have come tantalizing close. In 1972, after a decade or so of debate, Congress passed it and sent it to the states for ratification. (Under one process to change or add a constitutional amendment,  38 states -- or three-quarters -- must ratify it, whether via their legislatures or a state convention.)

Congress gave the states an entire decade for 38 states to get that done. In the end, 35 did.

No, Republicans don't control enough states to change the Constitution. But it's close.

The amendment has been introduced in Congress off and on ever since, but its fell flat. States haven't bothered to touch it.

Until now. The Democratic-controlled Nevada State Senate passed it mostly along party lines on Wednesday. The Democratic-controlled State Assembly will pick it up from there, where it's expected to sail through on party lines.

"It's like a no-brainer. Equal Rights Amendment," said state Nevada Sen. Pat Spearmen (D), the author of the bill. "Equal rights. That's what it is. It's just equal rights."

Nevada's governor is a Republican, and he hasn't commented on the amendment. But Democrats in Nevada say the parliamentary logistics of this mean the legislation doesn't need Gov. Brian Sandoval's signature.

Most Republicans in the state legislature aren't impressed. Their objections to the amendment in 2017 are similar to objections in the '70s and '80s: It could require women to enlist in the draft. It's not necessary. It's symbolic.

"An equal rights amendment that doesn’t have exclusions to protect families is something I can’t support," state Sen. Beck Harris, a Republican and the sole woman to vote against the amendment, told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Maybe Nevada's ratification of the amendment will amount to just symbolism, Spearman said. But symbols can be powerful too.

"It's imperative because people around the country and, yes, even some people around the world are questioning America's commitment to diversity and equality," Spearman said. "I believe that in 25, 30, even 53 years from now, I do think we will have the Equal Rights Amendment. I really do."