Virginia becomes 38th state to ratify ERA
RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia on Wednesday became the 38th state to approve the Equal Rights Amendment, a symbolic victory for those who for generations have been pushing for a constitutional guarantee of legal rights regardless of sex.
Virginia’s decision does not seal the amendment’s addition to the U.S. Constitution. A deadline for three-quarters, or 38, of the 50 states to approve the ERA expired in 1982, so the future of the measure is uncertain, and experts said the issue would likely be tied up in the courts and in the political sphere for years.
But the symbolism of the action in Virginia was significant after a struggle that had been raised, hard fought and, at times, forgotten over nearly 100 years.
“It’s just other hurdle, other level of that ceiling that’s cracked,” said Daphne Portis, 58, an ERA activist who clutched photos of female leaders — Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem — as she watched the debate among lawmakers in Richmond.
Women packed the galleries of the state Capitol as the debate unfolded, many of them wearing sashes that read, “Equal rights for women.” Some members of the House of Delegates, which for the first time in its 401-year history is led by a woman, Eileen Filler-Corn, brought their young daughters to witness the vote.
The ERA was first proposed in 1923, though Congress did not pass it until 1972. To approve the amendment, ratification was needed in 38 states by 1979; the deadline was later extended to 1982. By then, though, only 35 states had done so. For years, and especially during the 1970s, the issue was a matter of intense national debate, the topic of legislative fights and political campaigns. But it faded some as the deadline passed and the national conversation seemed to move on.
The ERA promised equal rights to women, and was aimed at improving pay equity for them, strengthening domestic violence and sexual harassment protections, and blocking discrimination against pregnant people and mothers. The bill reads, in part: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
In recent years, new efforts emerged to reignite the ERA, amid the #MeToo movement, efforts to protect abortion rights and as Democrats won control of some statehouses. Slowly, leaders pushed toward the 38-state threshold despite questions about what it would really mean for the amendment’s fate decades after the deadline.
In 2017, Nevada became the 36th state to approve the ERA, and a year later, Illinois passed it. That left Virginia, a state that failed to pass the ERA last year, considering it again this year, and with a state Legislature newly dominated by Democrats.
On Wednesday, the vote was 59-40 in the House and 28-12 in the Senate. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has said he supports the measure.
Timothy Williams is a New York Times writer.