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Post by Tyler Strosnider (JMU ’22) and Dr. Carah Ong Whaley

Dr. Megan Tracey, a professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at JMU gave a timely talk at Democracy in Peril in January about the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Along with current efforts in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida, there is an effort to ratify the ERA in Virginia. Dr. Tracey discussed support for the ERA across the state of Virginia, including from some 50 local governments. A recent poll conducted by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., found that 81 percent of voters polled support ratifying the ERA. But  Dr. Tracey also noted that many state lawmakers are hesitant to support it, with lawmakers citing the syntax of the amendment. Because the syntax is similar to the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, lawmakers argue that women protections are stated in the 14th amendment, and therefore this amendment is not necessary. Others argue that the deadline was in 1982, which was over 35 years ago, and therefore it is no longer valid.

So what’s the history behind the ERA anyway? We’re so glad you asked…

Because the Constitution does guarantee that men and women are equal, there is a long history of advocacy and activism for the ERA by both women and men who believe in constitutionally protected gender equality. In 1923, in Seneca Falls for the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the 1848 Woman’s Rights Convention, Alice Paul, founder of the National Women’s Party, first introduced the first version of the ERA. At the time it was called  the “Lucretia Mott Amendment” and stated:

“Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.”

The amendment was introduced in Congress that same year. In the early 1940s, both the Republican and Democratic parties added support of the Equal Rights Amendment to their political platforms. But there was opposition from the labor movement and from social conservative groups. In 1943, Alice Paul re-wrote the ERA and it was given a new title, the “Alice Paul Amendment.” It stated:

“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 Civil Rights movement of the 1960s provided impetus for a new wave of activism and women organized to demand their birthright as citizens and persons. The Equal Rights Amendment passed the U.S. Senate and then the House of Representatives, and on March 22, 1972, the proposed 27th Amendment to the Constitution was sent to the states for ratification. Congress placed a seven-year deadline on the ratification process. In the first year after being passed from Congress, 22 of the 38 necessary states ratified the amendment. After the first year, progress on ratification slowed as opposition organized.

Opponents like Phyllis Schlafly, leader of the Eagle Forum/STOP ERA, claimed that the amendment would deny a woman’s right to be supported by her husband, that privacy rights would be overturned, that women would be sent into combat, and abortion rights and homosexual marriages would be upheld.

Although Congress extended the deadline to 1982 for states to ratify, until 2017, not states had ratified the ERA since 1977. In March 2017, Nevada became the 36th state to ratify, followed by the state of Illinois which became the 36th state to ratify the ERA in April 2018.

On January 15, the ERA passed the 40-member Virginia Senate by a comfortable majority, 26-14, with seven Republicans voting for ratification. However, the amendment did not reach the floor of the House of Delegates. A vote in subcommittee failed along party lines, 4-2, to report the bill to the full Privileges and Elections Committee. Supporters of ratification of the ERA in Virginia say there is a path to get the resolution to the House floor before the legislative session concludes on February 23.  Stay tuned…

Watch “On Account of Sex”:
https://www.nytimes.com/video/players/offsite/index.html?videoId=100000004640494

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