‘Simply in purgatory’: Advocates urge new steps to ratify ERA after Virginia defeat

Supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment have launched a two-pronged effort to enact the long-stalled provision, demanding a vote in the Virginia House on a measure that was killed in committee last week and introducing bills in Congress to create new options for ratification.

Both efforts were outlined at a news conference Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

State Del. Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (D-Prince William) called for a floor vote in the House of Delegates on the ratification bill, which has already passed the state Senate and was co-sponsored by a majority of lawmakers in both chambers.

Three of Virginia’s newly elected Democratic congresswomen have written a letter to House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), urging him to make a floor vote happen, and Carroll Foy seemed to say the fate of the legislation lay in his hands.

“There is one man, and one man only, standing in between 160 million women across this country [and] their ability to finally be enshrined as human beings equal to men in the United States Constitution,” she said. “Virginia has the opportunity to lead.”

But it was not clear Tuesday whether Cox could order such a vote. His spokesman, Parker Slaybaugh, said questions about procedure should be directed to House clerk G. Paul Nardo, who could not be reached for comment. Any lawmaker could make a motion on the House floor to discharge the committee and take up the bill directly. So far, no one has done so.

“The speaker has not watched the press conference that Delegate Carroll Foy participated in,” Slaybaugh said. “He was busy presiding over today’s House floor session, which she was late for.”

If the bill passed, Virginia would become the 38th state to vote for ratification — the two-thirds threshold required by law.

But after heavy lobbying by conservative, anti-ERA groups, a subcommittee of the House Privileges and Elections Committee rejected the legislation last week, voting along party lines. Republicans on the full committee later shot down an effort to bring the bill before the full committee.

[What obstacles are left for the ERA?]

“The Equal Rights Amendment is needed to ensure that ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ is a Constitutional right for women, not just an inscription to view on the face of the Supreme Court,” said the letter to Cox from Reps. Jennifer Wexton, Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger, as well as Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.). “The ratification . . . would fulfill nearly 100 years of tireless work to guarantee that women are equal under the U.S. Constitution.”

ERA legislation had failed in Virginia multiple times before, but advocates believed they had momentum on their side this year: Every legislative seat in the General Assembly is on the ballot in November, and Republicans are eager to win back suburban women and hang on to their slim majority in each chamber.

After the committee defeat, feminist leaders said they’d try to revive the legislation and warned that lawmakers who voted against the ERA bills would do so at their own peril.

Critics of the amendment, led by socially conservative groups, say passage would make it harder to limit abortions and illegal to separate the sexes in bathrooms, college dormitories and school sports — a contention that supporters dispute.

While opponents say the ERA is no longer needed because sex and gender discrimination is outlawed, proponents say that women who bring discrimination lawsuits must show not only that actions were discriminatory but also that they were intentional, a standard that other groups do not have to meet.

Rights “must be guaranteed, spelled out in the Constitution,” Maloney said. “Let me tell you how it’s spelled — ERA, ERA, ERA.”

She and other proponents said the national #MeToo movement and debates over the treatment of women illustrate the need to enact the amendment.

The ERA was approved by Congress in 1972. But the measure fell three states short of ratification by the original deadline of 1979 and did not win approval from more states when the deadline was extended to 1982.

The Nevada legislature ratified the amendment in 2017, followed by Illinois in 2018. In the meantime, five states have rescinded their ratification votes — although courts have not ruled on whether those recisions are valid.

“There have been a lot of people fighting for it for many years, and Virginia has an opportunity to be on the right side of history,” Wexton, who ousted Republican Barbara Comstock in November, said in an interview.

Legislation introduced in Congress by Speier on Tuesday would remove the 1982 deadline. Maloney introduced a separate bill that would restart the ratification process.

While the bills might get a sympathetic reception in the House, where Democrats just reclaimed the majority, they are likely to face obstacles in the GOP-controlled Senate.

“There can be no reason to oppose the ERA other than fear,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who also attended the news conference and addressed the mostly female crowd. “I ask every secure, confident man to join me in support.”

Elizabeth Holtzman, a former Democratic congresswoman from New York who led the fight to extend the 1979 ratification deadline, said, “Think of the pain of all the women in all those years who were denied jobs, denied promotions, raped, denied equal rights. You know, the Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years. Now is the time for our promised land.”

In Richmond on Tuesday, ERA activists demonstrated alongside dozens of LGBT rights activists in the Capitol, urging lawmakers to support legislation to prohibit discrimination in housing and public employment.

“Nothing is dead until it’s over. The ERA is simply in purgatory,” said Kati Hornung, campaign coordinator for VAratifyERA.

She said, and Virginia lawmakers agreed, that they are discussing procedural maneuvers that could revive the proposal by getting it to a floor vote.

“The message is, ‘Don’t ever think a bill is dead while they’re still meeting,’ ” said Marjorie Signer, an Arlington resident who is legislative vice president for Virginia NOW. “It’s not over until it’s over.”

Jenna Portnoy, Gregory S. Schneider and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.