In 1972, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment and asked the states to ratify it. Forty-three years later, Virginia is still deciding whether to ratify the ERA, which would guarantee women and men equal rights.
By Ali Mislowsky
In 1972, when Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment and asked states to ratify it, The Godfather was number one at the box office, people talked on rotary telephones and women made up about one third of the U.S. workforce.
Today, The Godfathers I, II, and III are quotable classics, people surf the Internet with their smartphones, and almost half of American workers are women. And Virginia is still deciding whether to ratify the ERA.
The ERA would put in the U.S. Constitution a guarantee that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The proposed amendment was never added because it was not ratified by the requisite 38 states.
Virginia is one of the states that haven’t ratified the amendment. It may be too late to make a constitutional difference, but women’s rights activists continue to push for ratification in the Old Dominion.
That is the goal of Senate Joint Resolution 216, which is being sponsored by Sen. Adam Ebbin of Alexandria and nine fellow Democrats in the current legislative session.
The resolution passed the Senate on a vote of 20-18 on February 5th.
The 17 Democratic senators present all voted for the measure; they were joined by three Republicans: Sens. Jill Vogel of Winchester, Walter Stosch of Henrico and John Watkins of Chesterfield. The remaining 18 Republican senators voted against the resolution. (Sens. Louise Lucas of Portsmouth and Linda “Toddy” Puller of Mount Vernon, both Democrats, were absent for health reasons.)
Citizens groups such as the Women’s Equality Coalition applauded the Senate’s vote. They said the ERA isn’t just symbolic – it’s a matter of economic justice.
“There would be protection against gender discrimination in the U.S. Constitution, affording strict scrutiny of appeals,” said Candace Graham of Women Matter, an organization urging the General Assembly to approve the amendment. “A ratified ERA is the necessary underpinning of legislation requiring equal pay for equal work. The economic benefits to Virginian women and their families will be significant.”
Not everyone agrees. Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, voted against the ERA resolution. “There are differences between men and women which are undeniable as far as natural law is concerned, so I don’t think our efforts should be within the Constitution to attempt to say that we’re all equal, because I think that we are equal, but in different ways,” Hanger said. “We should confine our work to statutes that make sure that we protect the uniqueness of genders at the same time that we afford equal opportunity.”
He said women face issues, especially in employment, but those problems are being worked out in the workplace. “Some of those issues transcend into the ability to earn wage with parity and earnings and things of that sort, which I believe are being corrected over time as women are assuming different roles now than they used to in the workforce, in management, in leadership, and in all types of professional roles,” Hanger said.
The main division over the Equal Rights Amendment is the question of how legislators want to address the inequalities women face, said Dr. Alexandra Reckendorf, a professor of U.S. political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. “There’s still aspects of society where women and men are not treated equally, and the difference is, do we want to go the route of passing legislation or a constitutional amendment like the ERA to try to enforce that? Or do we want to allow society to adapt slowly over time to change what we think should happen?” said Reckendorf, who focuses on marginalized groups and identity politics.
“It’s not as much a problem of people not recognizing that there’s still some degree of sexism. But it’s the idea that sexism is surmountable, and the way to surmount it is not through legislation, but through society for a lot of people, which is why the ERA has always kind of struggled.”
Resolutions to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment have been introduced in the General Assembly annually since 2011, and they have failed every year.
It is unclear whether passage of the Equal Rights Amendment resolution would count as ratification past the 1982 deadline, or if every state that previously passed the amendment would need to do so again. To be ratified, an amendment to the Constitution must be passed by 38 states. If it were to pass the General Assembly, Virginia would be the 36th.
SJ 216 takes the position that “the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment remains viable and may be ratified notwithstanding the expiration” of the ratification time limit, according to the resolution’s summary.
However, some ERA opponents say the amendment is moot.
“It’s widely known that the deadline for ratification of ERA was 1982, making the current legislation nothing more than symbolic,” said Chris Freund of the Family Foundation of Virginia, which espouses conservative political, social and religious values. “It has passed the Senate a couple of times but has no chance in the House. This year, the House already determined which amendments they will pass, and this wasn’t on the list.”
Having cleared the Senate, SJ 216 has been assigned to the House Committee on Privileges and Elections.
ERA advocates acknowledge that the House, where Republicans hold a 2-1 edge, will be a challenge. That’s why members of Women Matter were visiting with delegates last week to make their case in support of the resolution.
“What we are dealing with here is a big information deficit. What we are asking the Virginia House of Delegates to do is bring Virginia in line and help bring us further to being the country that most Americans think we already are,” said Eileen Davis, co-founder of Women Matter.
She noted that in the past, after the ERA resolution won approval from the Senate, the House has refused even to debate it.
“We deserved the dignity of debate for several reasons,” Davis said. “Because this is important. Because this is civil rights. Because this is economics. Because this is timely. Because women deserve it. Because men deserve it. Because people deserve it.”
CNS reporter Ashley Jordan contributed to this story.
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Text of SJ 216: Ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution
WHEREAS, a concurrent or joint resolution is a resolution adopted by both houses of a bicameral legislature, which does not require the signature of the chief executive; and a concurrent resolution is sufficient for a state’s ratification of an amendment to the United States Constitution; and
WHEREAS, the United States Congress adopted the 27th Amendment to the United States Constitution, the so-called Madison Amendment, relating to compensation of members of Congress; and
WHEREAS, the Madison Amendment was proposed by our first Congress and only recently ratified by three-fourths of the states, and the Archivist of the United States certified the 27th Amendment on May 18, 1992, or 203 years after it was first proposed; and
WHEREAS, the founders of our nation, James Madison included, did not favor further restrictions to Article V of the United States Constitution, the amending procedure; and
WHEREAS, the United States Constitution is harder to amend than any other constitution in history; and
WHEREAS, the restricting time limit for the Equal Rights Amendment ratification is in the resolving clause and is not a part of the amendment proposed by Congress and already ratified by 35 states; and
WHEREAS, constitutional equality for women and men continues to be a timely issue in the United States and worldwide, and a number of other nations have achieved constitutional equality for their women and men; and
WHEREAS, since Congress passed a time extension for the Equal Rights Amendment on October 20, 1978, Congress has demonstrated that a time limit in a resolving clause can be disregarded if it is not a part of the proposed amendment; and
WHEREAS, Congress is in a unique position to judge the tenor of the nation, to be aware of the political, social, and economic factors affecting the nation, and to be aware of the importance to the nation of the proposed amendment; and
WHEREAS, if an amendment to the United States Constitution has been proposed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures, it is for Congress to determine the validity of the state ratifications occurring after a time limit in the resolving clause, but not in the amendment itself; now, therefore, be it
RESOLVED by the Senate, the House of Delegates concurring, That the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia hereby ratify and affirm the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution proposed by the United States Congress on March 22, 1972, and ratified by 35 state legislatures. The complete text of House Joint Resolution 208 proposing the Equal Rights Amendment follows:
HOUSE JOINT RESOLUTION 208
Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States relative to equal rights for men and women.
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled (two-thirds of each House concurring therein), That the following article is proposed as an amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which shall be valid to all intents and purposes as part of the Constitution when ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission by the Congress:
“Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
“Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
“Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.”; and, be it
RESOLVED FURTHER, That the Clerk of the Senate transmit certified copies of this joint resolution to the President of the United States, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, the President of the United States Senate, the members of the Virginia Congressional Delegation, and the Archivist of the United States at the National Archives and Records Administration of the United States.
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How They Voted
How the Senate voted on February 5th on SJ 216 (“United States Constitution; Equal Rights Amendment”).
Floor: 02/05/15 Senate: Read third time and agreed to by Senate (20-Y 18-N)
- YEAS – Alexander, Barker, Colgan, Dance, Deeds, Ebbin, Edwards, Favola, Howell, Lewis, Locke, Marsden, McEachin, Miller, Petersen, Saslaw, Stosch, Vogel, Watkins, Wexton – 20.
- NAYS – Black, Carrico, Chafin, Cosgrove, Garrett, Hanger, Martin, McDougle, McWaters, Newman, Norment, Obenshain, Reeves, Ruff, Smith, Stanley, Stuart, Wagner – 18.
- NOT VOTING – Lucas, Puller – 2.