RICHMOND, Va. — Both chambers of Virginia’s General Assembly passed the Equal Rights Amendment Wednesday, fulfilling a promise that helped Democrats seize control of the legislature and marking a watershed moment in the nearly century-long effort to add protections for women to the U.S. Constitution.
The lopsided votes capped an emotional week in which Democrats — particularly female lawmakers, who now hold unprecedented positions of power in Richmond — celebrated history in the making.
The House gallery was packed beyond its 102-seat capacity, with Virginia first lady Pam Northam and her daughter, Aubrey Northam, making a rare appearance to bear witness. ERA supporters attended from around the country, many wearing sashes from long-ago marches for women’s equality.
“What happens in Virginia impacts the entire country and will reverberate across the globe,” said Betty Folliard, the founder of ERA Minnesota, who traveled to Richmond to watch the votes.
Numerous legal hurdles still have to be cleared before the ERA, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, would become part of the Constitution. Critics say various deadlines for ratification have long since passed.
But supporters were jubilant that Virginia, after years of failure, is poised to become the 38th state to approve the amendment. They pledged to mount a massive national campaign to enact it.
“For the women of Virginia and the women of America, the resolution has finally passed,” Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, the first female House speaker in the 401-year history of Virginia’s legislature, said in announcing the result of the House vote.
She set off cheers that could be heard across the Capitol in the Senate chamber, where debate on the ERA was still underway.
Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, the resolution’s chief House sponsor, introduced the measure with a litany of Virginia’s civil rights failures, including slavery, massive resistance to school integration and the ban on interracial marriage.
“It’s Virginia again on the battleground of equality. I think it is right on time for Virginia to finally be on the right side of history,” Carroll Foy said.
Calling the balloting that was about to take place “the vote of a lifetime,” she asked lawmakers: “Which side of history do you want to be on? … The world is watching — your mothers, your sisters, your daughters.”
Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, held up a photo of herself and her daughter demonstrating for the ERA in Washington 44 years ago, when her daughter was 14. Watts wore the same sash Wednesday that she wore in the photo.
“It should be ancient history,” Watts said. “Forty-four years is a long time to wait.”
Republican lawmakers, who bottled up the ERA in subcommittee during their 26 years in control of the house of delegates, tried to postpone action with parliamentary challenges. Several also said the vote was merely symbolic, because it remains unclear whether the amendment can actually be ratified so long after its initial approval.
First proposed in 1923, the ERA was reintroduced in every session of Congress until it passed in 1972. U.S. lawmakers set a deadline of March 22, 1979, for three-quarters of the states to ratify the amendment, a measure ERA supporters now say is unconstitutional because it was not included in the amendment text.
As that deadline approached, Congress extended it to June 30, 1982. Because only 35 of the needed 38 state legislatures ratified the ERA by that time, the amendment was declared a failure.
Subsequently, 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 last week issued a finding that the amendment had expired and could no longer be ratified.
The finding was requested by three state attorneys general who sued the archivist of the United States late last year in an attempt to keep him from registering the amendment if Virginia passed it. Their lawsuit is being challenged by two Massachusetts organizations, who say only Congress — not the executive branch — can interfere in a constitutional amendment process.
Separately, several efforts are underway on Capitol Hill to either extend or restart the ratification process.
Elizabeth Holtzman, a former member of Congress from New York who sponsored the resolution extending the original ratification deadline to 1982, said Wednesday that Virginia’s vote is “a very big step forward.
“It’s a recognition by three-quarters of the states that American women firmly belong in the United States Constitution,” she said in a phone call from Paris. “It’s been a long time coming, far too long.”
Wednesday’s votes in Richmond were not for final passage of the amendment. Under parliamentary rules, each chamber still has to approve the other’s version, even though they are identical. That process could take several days, but in this case is considered a formality.
The state Senate has passed the ERA with bipartisan support several times in past sessions. This year, both chambers designated the measure Joint Resolution #1, signifying its priority status.
The House vote was recorded as 59-41, though one Republican — Wendell Walker of Lynchburg — said he voted “yes” inadvertently and filed a vote change. The other three Republicans who sided with every Democratic lawmaker were Dels. Carrie Coyner of Chesterfield, Glenn Davis of Virginia Beach and Jeff Campbell of Smyth County.
The 28-12 Senate vote included seven Republicans in favor of the amendment. Two of them — Sens. Siobhan Dunnavant (Henrico) and Jennifer Kiggans of Virginia Beach — made floor speeches. Kiggans, a former Navy helicopter pilot and the first female military veteran in the General Assembly, said that women have not needed the ERA to achieve great things, but that the measure’s symbolism had value.
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.
“The so-called Equal Rights Amendment will not give women any more rights than they have today,” Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, said on the floor Wednesday.
Some ERA critics pointed to the presence of female legislators in Richmond as proof that women were able to achieve in society even without the amendment.
But supporters say the amendment is a matter of guaranteeing women rights and protections.
“It is our time, together, to embrace equal rights under the law for everyone,” Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, the first openly transgender member of the Virginia legislature, said to cheers and applause before the House vote.
In the Senate, which scrapped its planned agenda to take up the matter as its first order of business, Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, said she was “baffled” by the controversy over timing.
“There’s no time limit on equal rights,” she said.
Above, in the gallery, Lynda Bird Johnson Robb — a former Virginia first lady and the daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson — sat front and center, decked out in a purple pantsuit, the trademark color of the ERA movement.
She also wore a purple sash displaying a half-dozen ERA pins she’d collected while supporting the cause. “I wore this when I marched — I think it was 1980 or ’79 — down Pennsylvania Avenue,” she said.
State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, acknowledged the strides women have made in society and in the General Assembly, where women hold a record number of seats, committee chairmanships and other leadership posts.
“And yet, we still have a long way to go,” McClellan said. “I don’t want to leave this fight unfinished for my daughter.”
After the Senate acted, ERA supporters celebrated in crowded Capitol hallways.
“This was 100 years in the making,” said Eileen Davis, a longtime Virginia ERA advocate and the mother of U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va. “It’s for all the women who didn’t live to see this day, and all the women who barely lived to see this day.”
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Sullivan reported from Alexandria.