The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Virginia still hasn’t ratified the Equal Rights Amendment. Why not?

Women are joined by supporters of women's rights for a strike, march and rally along the streets of downtown Los Angeles on March 8. (Frederic J. Brown/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Sara Fitzgerald, a former Washington Post staff member, is the author of “Elly Peterson: ‘Mother’ of the Moderates.”

As I sat in that Virginia legislative office building on a cold January day, I experienced an unnerving sense of deja vu.

I was channeling the frustration of the late Elly Peterson, whose biography I had written. Four decades earlier, the moderate Republican had served as co-chair, with Democrat Liz Carpenter, of ERAmerica, the coalition that sought a constitutional amendment to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex.

In 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment cleared Congress after a half-century of lobbying. It was such a no-brainer that, by the end of 1973, 30 of the requisite 38 state legislatures ratified it.

Proponents, a coalition leader recalled, “did everything they were told: wear skirts; involve religious organizations; involve traditional organizations; apply pressure from national figures; don’t use national figures; rally; don’t rally; use constituents to lobby; use professional lobbyists; poll the districts; work in and contribute to campaigns, etc. . . . After meeting all those criteria and changing no votes, the only logical conclusion is that legislators and political leaders were more interested in making proponents jump through hoops than really assessing constituent support for the issue. Time and again, as soon as one excuse was defused, another rose in its place. And when those excuses ran out, legislative sleight-of-hand took over.”

Carpenter said, “If we could change 16 votes, the ERA would pass. There are 16 men holding back the dignity of 150 million American women. It’s infuriating.”

Of course, another woman played a major role: Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly transformed the ERA into a hot-button right-wing issue. “We couldn’t have gotten those last three states,” Peterson recalled sadly at the age of 91. “And I don’t think you could get them today.”

By the congressional deadline of 1982, supporters were still three states short. Even though the deadline passed, experts think Congress could extend the deadline again or reintroduce the amendment. Last March, nearly 35 years after the deadline, Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the amendment.

We were in Richmond this year to try to add Virginia to the list. The Virginia Senate has approved it five times since 2011. For our meeting with Del. Hyland F. “Buddy” Fowler Jr. (R-Hanover), I brought along my toddler granddaughter, Lucy, because she actually is a constituent.

We met with Fowler’s legislative assistant, a woman with her own #MeToo story. Her boss really wasn’t opposed to the ERA, she asserted; he just believed it wasn’t necessary.

She said we needed to recruit some younger women if we wanted to succeed. At 66, I realized, I was four years older than Peterson was when the New York Times described ERAmerica’s leaders as “articulate, silver-haired and matronly-looking.”

Most of us around the table did, in fact, have gray hair. Our younger supporters, we noted, were working, going to school or taking care of children.

The legislator’s college intern spoke up. In the summer of 1972, she could have been me, interning at a newspaper, my future full of possibility. But I was older and wiser now. I had enjoyed being a wife and a mother, and pursuing a satisfying career. Still, I’d been told it didn’t matter where I went to college because I would probably be married by graduation. I had been denied a promotion because my supervisor feared “a catfight” if forced to choose between two women. And I had lived through Anita Hill’s humiliation and Hillary Clinton’s defeat.

The intern, an athlete, pointed to the success of the U.S. women’s soccer team to demonstrate that everything had changed. We noted that the team was still fighting to earn as much as the less successful men’s team.

Women in combat. Same-sex marriage. Unisex toilets. All of the bogeymen the ERA was expected to “inflict” on us had happened anyway. Ratification, we argued, would position Virginia as a forward-thinking state, helping it attract new corporations and jobs.

We received no firm commitment. The aide promised to speak with her boss.

But the story played out the way it always has. In the Senate Rules Committee, nine Republican men united to defeat the amendment by a 9-to-5 vote. Meanwhile, Fowler’s House Privileges and Elections Committee simply ignored it.

Thanks in part to gerrymandering, Fowler defeated a woman by more than 20 percentage points in November. But nine of his Republican colleagues were ousted by Democratic women, and women flipped two more open seats to the Democrats. Republicans retained control of the House only when a man’s name came out of a bowl.

Forty years ago, Elly Peterson said, “Women before me . . . have moved aside through death, through old age, but never through lack of commitment. Of necessity, the women of my era may well have to do the same.

“But behind us marches an army of young men and women — embracing all creeds, religions and races. They share each other’s dreams and goals — they no longer wish to see mediocrity in public elected officials and they demand a voice in their government.”

To which I reply, “Me, too.”

Read more about this issue

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Daniel Grossman and Gail Deady: Virginia is wrong to target a woman after an abortion

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Trump escalates the war on women