RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia on Wednesday moved to the brink of becoming the crucial 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in what was seen as a momentous victory by women’s rights advocates even though it is far from certain the measure will ever be added to the U.S. Constitution.
The state House and Senate approved the proposed amendment with bipartisan support, well over a generation after Congress sent the ERA to the states for ratification in 1972. Each chamber now must pass the other's resolution, but final passage is considered all but certain.
Amendments to the Constitution must be ratified by three-quarters of the states, or 38. But whether this one will go on to become the 28th Amendment may have to be decided in court because the deadline set by Congress for ratification of the ERA ran out in 1982 and because five states that approved it in the 1970s have since rescinded their support.
Still, the twin votes carried symbolic weight and showed how much once-solidly conservative Virginia, a place that defeated the ERA time and again, has changed.
Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, a sponsor of the House ERA measure, told her colleagues they were taking “the vote of a lifetime.”
“One hundred and sixty million women and girls across this country are waiting and will forever be changed by what happens in this body here today," she said.
ERA supporters had lined up hours in advance to get seats in the gallery, including Donna Granski, whose sash was covered in ERA buttons, some from her “antique” collection. Granksi said she was shocked when she moved to Virginia in the late ’70s and learned it hadn’t ratified the ERA. She had been pushing for it ever since.
“We feel like we are marching up to the peak of the mountain,” she said.
ERA advocates say it would enshrine equality for women in the Constitution, offering stronger protections in sex discrimination cases. They also argue the ERA would give Congress firmer ground to pass anti-discrimination laws.
Opponents warn it would erode commonsense protections for women, such as workplace accommodations during pregnancy. They also worry it could be used by abortion-rights supporters to quash abortion restrictions on the grounds they discriminate against women.
Virginia has undergone seismic political shifts in recent years because of increasing diversity and the growing activism and political power of women. Democrats retook control of the legislature in November’s elections and made passing the ERA a top priority after Republicans blocked it for years.
The ERA had passed the Virginia Senate in previous years with bipartisan support but had never before made it to the House for a floor vote.
It passed there on a 59-41 vote presided over by Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, the first female House speaker in the chamber’s 400-year history. Spectators in the gallery erupted in the cheers as she announced the outcome. The Senate then passed it 28-12.
Republican Del. Margaret Ransone, who voted against the ERA, emphasized the missed deadline and said: “I wish I could say that this dedication and hard work has not all been for nothing.”
Last week, the U.S. Justice Department issued an opinion saying that because the deadline has expired, the ERA is no longer legally pending before the states. The National Archives, which certifies the ratification of constitutional amendments, said it will abide by that opinion “unless otherwise directed by a final court order."
At least two lawsuits have already been filed, one of them brought last month by Alabama, Louisiana and South Dakota to block the amendment and another filed last week to clear a path for its adoption. In the meantime, congressional Democrats are working to pass a bill removing the deadline.