By Ali Mislowsky
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — In 1972, when Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment and asked states to ratify it, “The Godfather” was No. 1 at the box office, people talked on rotary telephones and women made up about one-third of the U.S. workforce.
Today, “The Godfather” 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 Feb. 5.
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, including Rappahannock County’s representative, Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-26th), 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.
How they voted
Here is how the Senate voted on Feb. 5 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.
“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 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.
Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.