ERA clears Senate committee, faces uncertainty in House
An 8-6 vote by a Senate committee Wednesday brought the federal Equal Rights Amendment one step closer to passing the General Assembly — which could make Virginia the 38th and final state necessary to add the ERA to the U.S. Constitution.
The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee voted to approve a resolution that Virginia ratify the ERA, which was proposed by Congress in 1972 and would prevent federal and state governments from passing laws that discriminate on the basis of sex.
The six Democrats on the committee were joined by two Republicans — Sens. William DeSteph of Virginia Beach and Jill Holtzman Vogel of Fauquier — in voting for the resolution. The other six Republicans on the panel voted against it.
The resolution — SJ 284 — was sponsored by a bipartisan group of 15 senators and three House members.
The committee’s decision will send the resolution to the Senate floor for a vote. While supporters are optimistic about bipartisan support in the Senate — which has passed similar proposals five times since 2011 — the same isn’t true in the House.
A co-sponsor of the resolution, Del. Hala Ayala, D-Prince William, said it will face Republican opposition. If it clears the full Senate, SJ 284 would go to the House Privileges and Elections Committee, where such resolutions have traditionally died.
Every Democrat on the House panel has signaled support for ratifying the ERA, but no Republican has followed suit. The lack of GOP support in the House committee represents the biggest hurdle for the resolution, said Candace Graham, co-founder of Women Matter, a group dedicated to ratifying the ERA.
“We feel very confident that if we can get those couple of votes on the [House] committee that we need for it to go to the floor, then it will pass on the floor,” Graham said.
When first introduced in 1923, the ERA did not pass in Congress. Renewed interest in 1972 pushed the amendment through Congress, and it was ratified by 35 states within the 10-year period before the 1982 deadline.
An amendment needs approval from three-fourths of the states — or 38 — for ratification.
A conservative movement led by political activist Phyllis Schlafly — who said the amendment would make all laws “sex-neutral” and subject women to the draft — played a role in leaving the ERA three states short of the 38 it needed for federal ratification at the time.
In recent years, there has been a revived push toward ratification. In 2017, Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the ERA, followed by Illinois the next year.
Because the deadline has expired, some say the ERA can’t be ratified. But other experts disagree. The 27th Amendment, which regulates congressional salaries, was ratified more than 200 years after its 1789 introduction, though it was never given a time limit, unlike the ERA.
“There are very smart and reasonable people on both sides who disagree over whether Congress has the constitutional authority in the first place to put a time limit on the ratification of a constitutional amendment,” said Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond, who also is a chief co-sponsor of the resolution.
Further complicating the matter is that five states have since rescinded their ERA ratifications. But the U.S. Constitution does not specifically allow states to do that, and previous rescissions have been deemed invalid.
Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, also co-sponsored SJ 284. He said the recent ratification by Nevada and Illinois has improved the outlook in Virginia and contributed to a new wave within the movement.
“Nevada and Illinois showed us that there are other legislatures in this country that are moving the ball forward,” Surovell said. “I think the urgency and the historical importance of being the state that puts us across the top really sort of changes the political and emotional dynamic of the issue.”
Unlike other recent efforts in Virginia, this year’s resolution is supported by several Republicans — including Sens. Sturtevant, DeSteph and Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico.
“We haven’t [previously] had a Republican who’s been willing to step up and actually carry this bill,” Surovell said.
Advocates also see renewed momentum in the form of 20,000 signatures on a petition and a poll showing that more than 80 percent of Virginians favor ratification.
“So we’re hopeful that all those things combined are going to make this year a different year,” Surovell said.
Opponents of the ERA fear it could result in integrated prisons and sports teams and fewer specific protections for women and could threaten female-only universities and organizations.
Colleen Holcomb, a lawyer and lobbyist representing the Family Foundation — which opposes the ERA — referred to it as a “fundraiser cause.”
“Regardless of what your position with regard to gender identity, we have biological men competing with women, and that's impending their ability to get academic scholarships and to be able to succeed in their areas of choice,” Holcomb said.
But advocates for the amendment view specific constitutional protections based on sex as necessary for gender equality.
“When you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression. They say, ‘You want special privileges.’ We don’t want special privileges. We just want what everyone else enjoys,” said Eileen Davis, co-founder of Women Matter. “Race, religion, national origin all have strict constitutional scrutiny — sex does not.”