History, History Column

Ratification of the ERA

by ©2018 Sarah Becker

Ratification of the ERA

“We shall never have equal rights until we take them,” attorney Belva Lockwood said, “nor respect until we command it.”  Lockwood, the first female attorney admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court was the Equal Rights Party’s second Presidential nominee, in 1884 and 1888.

This month the Virginia legislature again considers ratification of the 1923, more accurately the 1972, Equal Rights Amendment.  The Equal Rights Amendment, Section 1: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”  Practically speaking, the decision belongs to the House of Delegates.

“The law relating to married women makes the family a barony, a monarchy, a despotism, of which the husband is the baron, king or despot, and the wife the dependent, serf or slave,” The Washington Post wrote in 1896.  “The English common law in all its harshness and inflexibility, brought by our forefathers across the sea to this country, had been but little modified by statute…By the common law the identity of the wife in relation to her civil status was almost entirely swallowed up in the personality of her husband…In but few of the States have the disabilities of women been entirely removed.”   

Enter Quaker suffragist and attorney Alice Paul, founder of the 1916 National Women’s Party.  With the Party’s help the 19th Amendment, the women’s suffrage amendment was ratified in 1920; upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1922.  Slow going Virginia, home of the founding fathers’ Bill of Rights, did not ratify the 19th Amendment until 1952.

“To get the ‘male’ in effect out of the Constitution cost the women of the country 52 years of pauseless campaign [1868-1920],” Carrie Chapman Catt, President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association recounted.  Attorney Margaret Brent, of Maryland and Alexandria, Virginia, first petitioned for the right to vote in 1648.

Brent’s Virginia land patent included Alexandria’s Founder’s Park and Jones Point.  Alexandria’s conservative Democrats cum Reagan-ites dropped the “memorial to Margaret Brent from the Jones Point plan in 1985.”  Ronald Reagan, a conservative California Republican, was the first U.S. President (1981-1989) to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment.  In so doing, he reversed 40 years of Republican Party tradition.

“As leaders in public affairs, American women not only worked to secure their own rights of suffrage and equal opportunity but also were principal advocates in the abolitionist, temperance, mental health reform, industrial labor and social reform movements, as well as the modern civil rights movement,” President Reagan proclaimed on February 26, 1982.  “As volunteers, women have provided invaluable service and leadership in American charitable, philanthropic, and cultural endeavors.  And, as mothers and homemakers, they remain instrumental in preserving the cornerstone of our Nation’s strength—the family.”

A report entitled The Legal Status of the Homemaker in Virginia concluded “the state’s cavalier mentality is very much geared to the protection of women, but it has long regarded the notion of their equality an insult,” The Washington Post reported in 1977.  “[The Report] characterized the legal status of Virginia homemakers as unpredictable.”   

Alice Paul (1885-1977) was an unrelenting female force.  She first introduced the Equal Rights Amendment in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1923, on the 75th anniversary of the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention.  The amendment then read: “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.”  Her text was simple, the mission nearly impossible.

Many, including manufacturers, favored the ERA’s passage.  “If we must talk equality, let’s talk equality of leisure, so that girls in industry may have time to be human,” Jeannette Rankin (R-MT) said.  Rankin was the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives—in 1917.

Paul’s Equal Rights Amendment was reintroduced in Congress annually.  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964; Congress passed the ERA on March 22, 1972, and Women’s Equality Day, as per the 19th Amendment became law in 1973.  In 1977 twenty-three Virginia Unions, ranging from the Teamsters to the Bicycle Messengers, “pushed” for State ratification of the ERA.    

James M. Thomson (D-Alexandria)—Delegate, House Majority Leader, Chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, segregationist and Byrd brother-in-law—owned Virginia’s failure.  “On the Saturday before the [1977] election 3,000 ERA supporters staged a rally in Alexandria urging Thomson’s defeat,” The Washington Post explained.  “Comedienne Lily Tomlin spoke at the rally, saying she had come from California ‘to help defeat the strongest anti-ERA candidate in probably the whole country.’”  Thomson’s Committee kept the ERA “bottled up,” from 1972 to 1977 and after.

The Equal Rights Amendment has thus far failed because supporters have secured only 37 of the required 38 state votes needed to ratify.  Of the 37 states Nevada ratified the ERA in 2017, Illinois in May 2018.  The so-called deadline was June 30, 1982.

Although the Virginia legislature “let the Equal Rights Amendment go down to defeat,” it did “approve a series of bills that would give wives and widows a greater share of property accumulated during marriage,” The Washington Post noted in 1982.  State Senator Wiley Mitchell (R-Alexandria) successfully sponsored “a bill that would divide ownership of a married couple’s joint bank account down the middle.”

“[T]he most powerful opponents of ERA have been men ‘from the most conservative, unchanging small-town and rural portions of their states,’” The Washington Post concluded.  With few exceptions, the dozen “dirty” state legislators listed by the then National Women’s Political Caucus came from just such Districts.  Virginia House speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Henry) and State Senator Virgil Goode (D-Rocky Mount) were among the nationally named.  Goode switched to the opposition in 1980, after five years of cosponsoring the ERA.

Most state versions of the equal rights amendment, approximately 20, were adopted amid the turmoil of the 1970s, between 1971 and 1978.  Virginia’s state constitution, revised effective July 1, 1971, includes such a declaration.  Article 1, Section 11: “The right to be free from any governmental discrimination upon the basis of religious conviction, race, color, sex, or national origin shall not be abridged, except that the mere separation of the sexes shall not be considered discrimination.”  Private sector discrimination is not mentioned.

In 2017 the Trump administration “moved to expand the rights of employers to deny women insurance coverage for contraception and issued sweeping guidance on religious freedom.”  Wrote Elizabeth Cady Stanton, author of The Woman’s Bible in 1895:  “From the inauguration of the movement for woman’s emancipation the Bible has been used to hold her in the ‘divinely ordained sphere.’”

“The great decisions of Government cannot be dictated by the concerns of religious factions,” conservative Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) said in 1981.  “It was true in the days of [James] Madison and it is just as true today.”  A Memorial and Remonstrance…by His Excellency James Madison was published in 1786.  See also George Mason’s, Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, Section 16.     

“The ERA has bipartisan support in Virginia, but it’s still a hard sell for some conservatives,” Richmond attorney Patricia Wallace said.  In September the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors decided not to include ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in its state legislative agenda.  “The thing that’s the most shocking to me about this whole conversation is we’re having this conversation in 2018,” Board Chairman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) said.

Action is needed.  The AAUW ranks Virginia 29th in gender equality.  A Virginia woman earns only 79% of what a man earns.

“It is my opinion that the lapse of the ERA’s original and extended ratification periods has not disempowered the General Assembly from passing a ratifying resolution,” Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring wrote on May 11, 2018.  “Given Congress’s substantial power over the amending process, I cannot conclude that Congress would be powerless to extend or remove the ERA’s ratification deadline and recognize as valid a State’s intervening act of ratification.  Indeed, legislation currently pending in Congress seeks to exercise that very power.”

“I see no reason not to codify equality, especially since the lack of codification has been used in the past to justify unequal treatment,” 28 year-old millennial Hannah Risley said.  “Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape objectified women.  You know the words: ‘I just start kissing them.  Grab ‘em by the pussy.  You can do anything.’”  Anne Schlafly Cori, daughter of Reagan ally Phyllis Schlafly and Chairman of the Eagle Forum, remains opposed.  The Eagle Forum was established in 1972.

“Although the Virginia General Assembly has never ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, the Senate of Virginia has passed a ratifying resolution at least five times, most recently in 2016,” Attorney General Herring continued.  “Similar measures have been introduced in the House of Delegates, but have not been considered.”

Ironically, it may be James Madison, father of the Bill of Rights, who has the last say.  In 1789 the first Congress passed a Constitutional amendment regarding Congressional pay.  The Amendment, now the 27th Amendment, was not ratified until 1992.  Legal acceptance of the Madison Amendment—more than 202 years later—has led many Equal Rights proponents to argue the ERA’s viability.

Let’s ratify the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment!  VAratifyERA.org toured the State in November and the women’s message is compelling.  Forty-seven years is a long wait.

The United States has yet to ratify the 1979 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the CEDAW treaty.  Ratification of the ERA, of CEDAW “would continue America’s proud bipartisan tradition of promoting and protecting human rights by extending those rights to cover women and girls specifically,” the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women wrote in 2016.

Of the United Nations 193 member states only six countries have declined to ratify the CEDAW treaty: Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Padau, Tonga and the United States.  The U.S. cultural explanation is?  Whatever the alleged rationale, Virginia’s General Assembly has no excuse.  Only the seeming immutability of former Delegate James M. Thomson’s outdated dispute.

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.  Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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