On Tuesday, Virginia legislators in both the state Senate and House are expected to vote to pass resolutions in support of ratifying the Equal Rights Amendments, which declares, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
While those 24 words may seem simple, the century-long battle to enshrine them in the Constitution has been anything but. Even if Virginia succeeds in becoming the 38th state to ratify the ERA, meaning that the amendment theoretically has enough state support to become official, all three branches of the U.S. government are already facing questions about whether it’s simply too late.
The resolution to support the ERA passed Tuesday afternoon in the Virginia House of Delegates, where debate was interrupted with chants of “ERA!” While the Virginia Senate has voted to ratify the ERA in the past, Tuesday marked the first time that the House has done so — thanks, in large part, to the wave of Democrats that swept into office in Virginia’s November elections and flipped the state legislature from red to blue.
“It’s really about women understanding that our fundamental rights are not guaranteed,” Jennifer Carroll Foy, a Virginia House Delegate and lead sponsor of the ERA resolution, told VICE News before the vote. “Sex discrimination is still rampant. So we understand that we have to take a seat at the table, because that is the only way that our interests will be protected.”
The idea of an ERA was first proposed in 1923 by suffragette Alice Paul. But Congress didn’t pass the amendment until 1972, when the women’s rights movement was arguably at its height in the United States. Three-quarters of the nation, or 38 state legislatures, needed to ratify the ERA before it could join the Constitution. Congress initially gave the states until 1979 to do so, then bumped the deadline until 1982.
“What you see now is a culmination of so many people’s efforts over the years to come to a fruition.”
By then, a conservative movement against the ERA had mobilized, arguing the amendment would force women into military combat, undermine men’s mandate to support their wives and children, and legalize same-sex marriage. The “Stop ERA” campaign successfully derailed the amendment: Only 35 states had ratified it by 1982.
At the time, Carroll Foy was just about 1 year old. But while the country has changed quite a bit since the 1980s, she says the amendment is still necessary in order to raise the standards used to judge the constitutionality of laws that may discriminate on the basis of sex. She points to the #MeToo movement and the historic wave of women who won elections in the 2018 midterms as proof that women are now realizing they still need more rights and representation.
“There’s been women who’ve been beaten, and who’ve marched and rallied and fought for their entire lives for this issue,” Carroll Foy said. “What you see now is a culmination of so many people’s efforts over the years to come to a fruition.”
In 2017, Nevada legislators voted to become the first state in more than three decades to ratify the ERA. A year later, Illinois followed suit.