RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia’s legislature finalized passage of the Equal Rights Amendment on Monday, with women presiding in both the Senate and House of Delegates for the historic votes.
Virginia becomes the 38th — and potentially final — state to ratify the amendment guaranteeing equal protection for women, setting the stage for a legal fight over whether too much time has passed to add it to the U.S. Constitution.
“We have waited over 400 years, and now is our time,” Sen. Louise Lucas, D, said at a news conference Monday morning ahead of the vote.
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, D, who usually presides in the Senate, stepped aside so that Lucas could wield the gavel for the midafternoon vote in that chamber, which was 27-12 with six Republicans and all Democrats in favor. Lucas is both the first woman and first African American to serve as president pro tempore of the Virginia Senate.
The House approved the bill 58-40 a short time later, with House Speaker Eileen Filler Corn, D, presiding and three Republican delegates joining all Democrats in voting yes.
“Today we are making history,” Filler-Corn said Monday morning. “We are walking down a more inclusive path.”
Both chambers of the legislature had approved the ERA on January 15, but under parliamentary rules the measure had to “cross over” so each chamber could approve the other’s version.
The formality gave supporters a second chance to celebrate. While crowds were not as enormous as the first time around, leaders from several national women’s organizations were on hand to see it through. When the Senate voted, a rare cheer rose from the gallery.
“Because of your work, we are closer than we ever have been to that equal future,” Carol Jenkins of the ERA Coalition told Virginia lawmakers Monday morning. “I cannot tell you how thrilled we all are to be witness … to an all women-led event.”
She and several others promised a vigorous fight to ensure that ERA is fully ratified despite arguments from opponents that a time limit has expired.
“As we enjoy today, we plot for tomorrow,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority. The former president of the National Organization for Women has been fighting for the ERA for almost 50 years.
Smeal noted that passage of the ERA was one of the top issues that helped Democrats win majorities in both houses of the General Assembly during last fall’s elections. Republican majorities for years had blocked approval of the ERA, despite some bipartisan support.
In the House on Monday, three Republicans voted for the measure — Glenn Davis of Virginia Beach, Carrie Coyner of Chesterfield and Jeffrey Campbell of Smyth. In the Senate, Republicans voting yes included Minority Leader Thomas Norment of James City and Sens. Bill DeSteph of Virginia Beach, Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico, Emmett Hanger of Augusta, Jen Kiggans of Virginia Beach and Richard Stuart of King George. Another Republican supporter, Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel of Fauquier, was absent Monday.
Conservative opponents say ratifying the ERA would make it harder to limit abortion and illegal to separate the sexes in bathrooms, college dormitories and school sports — assertions supporters dispute. Sen. Amanda Chase of R-Chesterfield offered the lone argument against the resolution on the Senate floor, saying it would “harm women and their children, born and unborn.”
The amendment, first proposed in 1923, passed Congress in 1972 and contained a seven-year deadline for three-quarters of the states to ratify it. ERA supporters now say that provision was unconstitutional because it was not included in the amendment text.
The deadline was extended to 1982, but only 35 of the 38 required states had approved it by then. After opponents declared the effort a failure, legislatures in Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, Tennessee and South Dakota rescinded their ratifications. ERA supporters say there is no provision for rescissions in the Constitution, and therefore they do not count. No federal court has conclusively ruled on that question.
Since 2017, Nevada and Illinois have ratified the ERA, which put Virginia in place as the final state needed for ratification, if the five withdrawals are not counted. But the U.S. Justice Department earlier this month issued a finding that the amendment had expired and could no longer be ratified.
Supporters are pursuing the issue in federal court and support an effort in Congress to officially rescind the deadline.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, D, has said he views the effort as valid and said Monday that he will work to support it.
“I am as committed as ever to make sure we use every tool at our disposal to make sure the Equal Rights Amendment becomes part of the United States Constitution, as it should be,” Herring told a group of ERA advocates at the Capitol.
Hours later, during debate in the Senate, members stumbled to properly address the woman in charge.
“Mr. President,” more than a few members called Lucas. “Madame clerk,” Sen. Joe Morrissey, D, said. “Yes, sir, madame president,” said Sen. Mark Peake, R.
Sen. Scott Surovell, D, got it right. “Madam President — I love saying that,” he said.