Virginia passes the Equal Rights Amendment, but the struggle continues
Sponsors of the Equal Rights Amendment, State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, left, and Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, right, hug after the Senate Privileges and Elections committee vote to report the ERA amendment to the floor of the Senate during a Committee hearing at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Va., Jan. 9, 2020./ Steve Helber/AP

January 15, 2020, was a historic day in America: Both houses of the Virginia General Assembly approved the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Virginia was the 38th state to do so. This puts the ERA over the top in terms of the number of states which have signed on.

The U.S. Constitution establishes that amendments require approval by a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress, followed by a three-fourths majority of the legislatures of the fifty states. Neither the president of the United States nor the state governors have a role in signing or vetoing a federal constitutional amendment. Three-fourths of fifty add up to 38, so the Virginia vote does the trick.

The chief sponsor of the motion to ratify the ERA in the Virginia House of Delegates (the lower house of the General Assembly) was Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, an African-American woman who represents the community of Woodbridge, a Washington, D.C., exurb in Northern Virginia, which happens to be the town where I live. The copatrons, i.e., cosponsors, of the resolution were Delegates Hala Ayala, a Latina also from Woodbridge, Charnielle Herring, an African-American woman from Arlington across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., who is the Democratic Party Majority Leader in the Virginia House, Danica Roem from Manassas Park, another D.C. exurb and the first transgender woman elected to the Virginia General Assembly, Keye Kory, from the D.C. suburb of Falls Church, Jeion Ward, an African-American woman from the coastal town of Hampton in the far Southeast of the state, and Vivian Watts, an African-American woman from Annandale in the D.C. metropolitan area.

The chief sponsor of the measure in the Senate was Senator Jennifer McClellan, from Richmond, Virginia’s capital, and it was cosponsored by Senator Emmett Hanger, a Republican from Mount Solon in the Shenandoah Valley in Appalachia.

Equal Rights Amendment supporters demonstrate outside Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Va., Jan. 8, 2020. / Steve Helber/AP

The resolution passed by a vote of 59 to 41 in the House of Delegates, and then passed 28 to 12 in the Senate. There are 55 Democrats and 45 Republicans in the Virginia House, with 21 Democrats and 19 Republicans in the Senate. What was notable is that a number of Republicans in both houses voted in favor. In the past, and as recently as last year, the Republicans have blocked ERA approval in committee. But in last November’s state legislative elections, the Democrats won majorities in both the House and Senate for the first time in quite a few years, which has made the ERA approval possible and is setting the stage for more advances. Both the ERA vote and the work toward other pieces of progressive legislation are based on the leadership of women, African Americans and other minorities in this formerly archconservative slave state. The times they are a-changing.

The ERA vote was met with doomsday predictions from the far right. The possibility that abortions will now proliferate was presented as an anti-ERA argument. The issue of who gets to use what bathroom was predictably dragged out again in the panorama of horrors that are supposedly going to be ushered in if the ERA is added to the Constitution. So the right wing has mobilized to stop the ERA. Already this past December, the conservative governments of Alabama, Louisiana and South Dakota had sued to prevent the Archivist of the United States, the official in charge of the ratification of constitutional amendments, from verifying that the amendment can still go forward if enough states sign onto it.

Immediately after the Virginia vote, the Office of the Legal Counsel of the U.S. Justice Department announced that the Virginia vote makes no difference, that the ERA is dead. Their reasoning is that when Congress passed the ERA in 1972, it added an expiration date by which 38 states had to sign on. Although that date was subsequently extended by Congress, the new deadline, 1982, has also passed.

But the Constitution says nothing about such deadlines, so some ERA supporters argue that they have no constitutional validity. The possibility of Congress reopening the process is being discussed by ERA supporters.

This struggle may not be over for quite a while.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.