It’s been six months since the Virginia General Assembly struck down two bills that would make the state the 38th in the country to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and local advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers haven’t slowed down in their efforts to have women’s rights formally recognized, pinning their hopes on a state still grappling with the legacy of the Confederacy.
“We’d like to be on the right side of this one in the history books,” says Kati Hornung, campaign organizer of VA Ratify ERA.
VA Ratify ERA is just one of several groups intent on seeing the amendment, which would prohibit discrimination based on sex, ratified in the state. On August 26, their latest campaign kicked off with statewide screenings of “Iron Jawed Angels,” a film dramatizing the work of women’s rights activists in the early 20th century. One of the film’s figures, Alice Paul, originally wrote the Equal Rights Amendment, introduced to Congress in 1921, with the intention of it being ratified as the 19th Amendment.
The bill would pass out of Congress without approval, before eventually being reintroduced in 1971 and approved the following year, with 35 states ratifying it over the course of five years. Now, with Nevada in 2017 and Illinois in May adding to that tally, advocates within and outside the Commonwealth are looking to Virginia as the linchpin that would enshrine women’s rights in the Constitution.
For advocates like Hornung, that means working to not just change the hearts and minds of legislators in the General Assembly, but educating a populace largely unaware of women’s continued absence from one of the country’s most foundational texts.
“Most people remember the Equal Rights Amendment being a big thing back in the 70s and 80s and they’re surprised to hear that it wasn’t finished. Most people think it’s in there,” says Hornung.
Hornung, who admits to sharing that same assumption years ago, is now focused on ensuring the push for the Equal Rights Amendment is a bipartisan one, and inclusive of all races and genders.
Lawmakers in the General Assembly have also been working to see the amendment ratified, and are aware of the expectations placed on them.
“I think that Virginia is the hope, given what’s transpired over the last election,” says House Representative Hala Ayala, D-Prince William, whose successful bid in 2017 was one of several historic firsts for the state, and part of an influx of female lawmakers to the General Assembly.
“Being a woman of color, I already have two strikes against me in how the public views me for talking about many aspects of what the Equal Rights Amendment can do to help ensure we’re equal.”
Championing the importance of codifying the civil rights of the marginalized, Ayala pointed to the expansion of Medicaid, among other successes from the 2018 session of the General Assembly, as proof of a fundamental change in Virginia’s political structure. However, that same session showed that some old standards remain firmly entrenched
In an August 27 press release, Virginia House Democrats stressed the decades-long struggle to see the Amendment fully ratified. Blame was assigned to House Republicans, who passed over a bill in February focused on the amendment before it could reach the floor, with similar results for a similar bill in the Senate.
This is a sticking point for VA Ratify ERA, whose list of patrons in the General Assembly seemingly ensures the Equal Right Amendment has the support to be signed into law – if it can get through the Republican-controlled committees first.
Opponents to the amendment have repeatedly cited the 1979 deadline established by Congress as justification to not ratify the amendment, a criticism seemingly never raised in the two centuries it took for the 27th Amendment to be ratified in 1992.
Facing the possibility of further pushback in 2019, Ayala has multiple options in mind to ensure ratification. This includes continuing to educate the public about the amendment, while also using the upcoming midterms as an opportunity to increase the number of both women and Democratic legislators in the General Assembly.
“If we can’t change your hearts and minds, we’re going to change your seats,” she says.
While resolute in her goals for the Equal Rights Amendment, Ayala remains open to a bipartisan solution. Hornung, for her part, is strictly non-partisan as VA Ratify ERA works to gain a sympathetic ear from Republican leaders. A potential meeting with House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, is being discussed for October, during what Hornung describes as the most critical time for the amendment’s chances to be added to the General Assembly’s 2019 session.