The delegate from Petersburg has fought hard for her place in the General Assembly, and fought just as hard to make Virginia the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. This is her story.
A month into 2020, the General Assembly has entered a new era of historical change as Democrats have taken control of Virginia’s legislative body. One specific issue that has received immediate attention from the new Democratic majority is equality for women. And the first concrete goal for the state in order to advance that agenda was becoming the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
This amendment to the United States Constitution, which passed through Congress nearly 50 years ago, would state 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.” In order for this amendment to become part of the Constitution, it must be ratified by 38 of the 50 states. And when, last month, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the amendment, the ERA became a pivotal moment in history — both for Virginia and the United States.
Even before the beginning of the 2020 General Assembly session, ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment was a top priority for Democratic Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy. But the fight for ratification was not just about the destination for Carroll Foy; it was also about the journey.
Growing up 20 miles south of Richmond, VA in Petersburg, Carroll Foy was instilled by her grandmother with the idea that “You can do anything you put your mind to.” Taking inspiration from this phrase, Carroll Foy focused on her education, working to overcome adversity along the way.
“I remember being in high school, in my JROTC class, hearing at that time that there was a school that I couldn’t attend because I was a female,” said Carroll Foy. That school, Virginia Military Institute, was the last military college in the United States to refuse admittance to women. Carroll Foy was determined to attend, and after a 1997 Supreme Court decision ruled that the school would have to admit women, she did. “I was accepted, and then I actually graduated in the third class of women to ever graduate from the Virginia Military Institute.”
Carroll Foy continued to defy societal expectations for African American women, earning a Master’s Degree in English from Virginia State University, then moving to the west coast to obtain a law degree at San Diego’s Thomas Jefferson School of Law. When she returned to Virginia, she began working as a city magistrate in Richmond before becoming a public defender.
“Being a public defender and helping people who are over 100 percent below the poverty line was something I was really passionate about,” Carroll Foy said, expressing empathy with her clients. ”Those are kids, people with substance abuse issues, mental illness.”
By January of 2017, she’d decided to take another step to help the people she worked with as a public defender. She decided to run for office to become the Second District’s representative in Virginia’s House Of Delegates. During the campaign, she became a mother of twins. Initially bombarded with concerns of how she was going to manage life as a mother, a wife, an attorney, and a candidate running for a seat in the House of Delegates that had been previously held by a Republican, Carroll Foy grew frustrated with those who suggested she’d have to decide whether she wanted to focus on motherhood or her career. “Why do they have to be ‘or’s’? Why can’t they be ‘and’s’?” she asked. “Why can’t I do it all?”
So far in her time in office, she’s proven that she can. As a legislator, Carroll Foy seeks challenges that offer an opportunity to alter the prejudicial and sexist paradigm. She wants to make sure change is made, and done so properly. “Equality is not something I’m willing to compromise,” she said.
Carroll Foy began fighting to pass the ERA as soon as she took her seat in the General Assembly in 2018. During the fight, she worked closely with Richmond-based advocate Eileen Davis, along with advocacy organizations like the ERA Coalition, Virginia National Organization for Women, VA ratify ERA, and the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
Before the 2019 election, she was unable to convince the Republican-controlled House Of Delegates to pass the ERA. At the end of that unsuccessful battle, she told Republicans, “If we can’t change your mind on women’s equality, we will have to change your seat.”
To Carroll Foy, the ERA has never been a secondary issue.“We have the equal pay act, but we need an Equal Rights Amendment as a constitutional anchor to really give those laws teeth,” she said. ”Once you start to pay women what they are worth, you lift millions of women, and millions of families.”
Carroll Foy isn’t just a one-issue legislator, though. She is currently working on legislation to end wage theft through a bill requiring contractors to pay what’s known as a “prevailing wage” — a wage matching the average paid to workers in similar positions in their industry. She’s also introduced the Pregnant Worker Fairness Act, which would require employers to make “reasonable accommodation” for pregnant employees, as well as a bill establishing a paid family and medical leave program through the Virginia Employment Commission.
But the passage of the ERA has been a big victory for Carroll Foy, one she hopes will prove that Virginia is on a new course.
“This sends a message throughout the country that we are now on the right side of history,” said Carroll Foy. “What this says is that Virginia has come to a turning point, and now with Democrats in control, we are going to fight for fairness, equality, and justice across the board.”
Additional reporting by Marilyn Drew Necci. Top Photo via Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy/Facebook