For months now, the Equal Rights Amendment has been on the brink of becoming federal law. Virginia might be the state to put it over the top.
Jennifer Carroll Foy, a Virginia legislator, just wrapped a tour across the state campaigning for the ERA, which says 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.”
It was passed by Congress in 1972 but still has yet to be ratified by the states more than four decades later.
“The majority of places around the world have enshrined women’s fundamental rights as people in their founding documents,” Foy said. “The United States have failed to do that.”
For an amendment to be added to the Constitution, a minimum of 38 states have to sign off. After an initial flurry of approvals in the 1970s, support for the ERA stalled.
But it got new momentum last year when Nevada approved it. Then in May Illinois became the 37th state to ratify the amendment.
Now, advocates hope Virginia will become state No. 38.
A squishy deadline
When Congress passed the ERA, it gave states until 1979 to vote on the amendment. That deadline was later extended to 1982.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean time’s up to add the ERA to the Constitution. Foy, a Democrat in the Virginia’s House of Delegates, said Congress can opt to renew the deadline.
“They’ve already extended the deadline before and they can definitely do it again, so that’s not an issue,” she said.
In Virginia the ERA has gathered support from both sides of the aisle, Foy said, adding that largely Republican areas have passed resolutions in support of ratification.
But some conservative groups in the state fear the ERA could expand abortion rights and force women to be drafted into the military.
The subject is sure to spark debate when Virginia’s legislature reconvenes in January.
What will ratifying the ERA mean?
“It’s a very important symbolic element to ensuring our Constitution recognizes that women are equal,” said Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society, a progressive legal organization. “And that goes a long way in providing the inspiration to young women and girls and that they, too, can aspire to the highest possible positions.”
More practically, Foy said, the amendment is essential for legal protections – on top of the other nondiscrimination laws that are already in place.
“You have the Civil Rights Act, but what really gave that teeth were the 14th and 15th amendments,” she said. “Although we have Title IX and the Equal Pay Act, (these are just) laws that have no teeth if they don’t have a constitutional anchor.”
The ERA also would make women much more likely to prevail in legal cases of sexual assault and workplace harassment, Foy said.
Fredrickson said the amendment could have other impacts as well.
“Women still lag far behind in pay (and) women of color are particularly poorly paid,” she said. “The ERA would give a new approach and allow women to finally change the lower wage jobs.”
Foy believes equality of the sexes “should be treated like education or transportation” because it affects everyone.
“It’s time for us to purposefully be put in, and right the wrong and fulfill this country’s pledge of being equal under the law,” she said. “Virginians specifically have the opportunity of being on the right side of history.”