Local supporters of Equal Rights Amendment prepare to ratchet up the volume for passage in Virginia

By Molly Long and Veronica Petrikas, contributors

Protesters and supporters flooded the Virginia House of Delegates committee room on Jan. 22 to voice their opinions on the Equal Rights Amendment, the proposal to change to the U.S. Constitution to prohibit discrimination based on gender. But its approval wouldn’t come that day. The measure to make Virginia the 38th state — and last one needed — to ratify the ERA failed by a 4-2 vote in House’s Privileges and Elections Subcommittee, even after the Virginia Senate had passed the measure.

Supporters of the ERA maintain that it is imperative that the U.S. incorporate inclusive language into its constitution and are frustrated that it has taken this long to pass. Now, local proponents are looking to turn up the pressure unless the House reconsiders.

“If it is not passed in the House, we regroup,” said Sylvia Rogers, a retired JMU professor and co-vice president of public policy for the American Association of University Women of Virginia. “Then we refocus on identifying candidates for the 2019 elections who will support gender equality under the law.”

All 100 House of Delegates seats and 40 state Senate seats are up for election in November.

In addition to political activism, ERA supporters are stepping up outreach efforts. For instance, Rogers and Megan Tracy, associate professor of anthropology at JMU, are hosting a talk Monday, Feb. 18, from 6-8 p.m. at the 3rd floor of Rose Library called “Can Virginia do this? Ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment.”

Hak-Seon Lee, associate professor of political science at JMU, said the debate over the ERA is still “very time relevant in the context of the #MeToo movement,” and added he expects Virginia lawmakers eventually will ratify it.

“Within ten years — ideally within this year — they will change their mind,” he said. “They will get pressure from voters.”

Lee said he sees this revamped movement as “an awakening period with female students and professionals.”

“Their voices are louder in their recognition of their unequal treatment by male counterparts,” he said.

Over its nearly 96-year journey, the ERA has generated controversy and criticism even as it’s gained enough support to be on the cusp of ratification. Originally written in 1923, Congress passed the ERA in 1972 with a seven-year ratification deadline. In 1978, Congress extended the deadline to ten years, then kept extending it. Last year, Illinois became the 37th state to endorse it. A constitutional amendment must receive approval by three-quarters of the states — or 38 of the 50 — to be adopted. But even if a 38thstate endorses the measure, the last deadline has passed. So it could go back to Congress to decide to recognize the ratifications or pass a new amendment, which would start the process over again.

The efforts for Virginia to be the 38th state have faced longer odds since the measure failed to get out of the House subcommittee last month. Delegate Margaret Ransone, a Republican from Kinsale and the only woman delegate on the subcommittee, was among the four delegates who voted against it, saying “I don’t need words on a piece of paper, God made us all equal.” Ransone did not return phone or email messages The Citizen left last week.

But advocates, including many from Harrisonburg, say the setback in last month’s House committee has only hardened their resolve to see ratification go through. And they bring with them a mosaic of perspectives:

Sylvia Rogers, co-vice president of Public Policy American Association of University Women of Virginia

Even though Rogers has been a long-time advocate for the ERA, she only recently became involved with the campaign, VAratifyERA, the formal efforts to win ratification in Virginia.

Rogers, a retired English professor at JMU, described the campaign as “brilliantly organized.”

VAratifyERA launched its campaign last summer after Illinois became the 37th state to back the constitutional amendment. Kati Hornung, the VAratifyERA campaign coordinator, confirmed the effort is “100% volunteer driven.” 

“Equality is bigger than all of us and we are modestly pushing our way forward and hope to see Virginia ratify in 2019,” Hornung said.

One of Rogers’ favorite moments from working with the campaign was in November when the VAratifyERA’s traveling campaign bus arrived at JMU to publicize the effort.

“It was a thrilling affirmation of years of efforts on behalf of the ERA to see the ERA Tour Bus roll onto the JMU campus and sign our names in proclamation that we join with 81% of Virginians who support ratification of the ERA,” she said.

From watching both her mother and grandmother face pay inequities, sexual harassment, and forms of domestic violence, she realized at a young age the playing field is not level for everyone. She cites them as the reason behind her advocacy for the ERA.

“They have enabled me to recognize and speak out about these forms of intimidation and bias endemic in our culture,” she said.

Rogers said the contentious four-decade journey to ratify the amendment has been going on for too long.

“In my view, it is unconscionable that our Constitution does not guarantee its citizens protection from all forms of discrimination, harassment or acts of violence because of their gender,” she said.

She said even though the measure to ratify the legislation has bipartisan support, the opposition — articulated by Ransone and others during the debate in the House committee last month — shows supporters, like Rogers, that they have more work to do.

“Opponents of the ERA argue that there are already laws providing for gender-based equality at the national and state level. However, laws can be ignored, changed, or inadequately enforced,” she said.

For example, Rogers pointed to the Equal Pay Act as a law already on the books that’s been ineffective or disregarded by employers. The measure was aimed at protecting women from being short-changed with salaries compared to men. However, women still earn less than men for doing similar jobs.

“Fifty-five years after the Equal Pay Act, white, full time working women still earn 20% less than their male counterparts, or 80 cents to the dollar,” Rogers said. “Other women earn from 75% to 54%, or less depending upon their race and age.”

Citigroup, earlier this year, acknowledged it pays women 71% compared to the median pay of men in the company, as CNN reported.

Liza Mickens, JMU senior majoring in communication studies:

Mickens is the great-great granddaughter of Maggie L Walker, the first woman to run for statewide office in Virginia. Since she was 5, she has been trying to keep alive the legacy of Walker’s glass ceiling-breaking efforts, even though Walker is sometimes left out of the history books. Mickens has for years been speaking about her in public forum and this summer became involved with VAratifyERA.

“They wanted me to just reach out and correct some history, but at the time I really had no idea that the Equal Rights Amendment wasn’t a constitutional amendment,” Mickens said. “I really thought that it was something that we had done long before I was here.”

In January, Mickens spoke on behalf of VAratifyERA and testified before the Virginia Senate’s Privileges and Elections Committee. She told lawmakers that Virginia has been on the wrong side of history, referencing Virginia’s ratification of the 19th Amendment – giving women the right to vote – 32 years after it became part of the Constitution.

“These senators and delegates have to understand that they are representing our voices,” she told The Citizen. “But they are also representing all of our different histories and for them to not really honor what we’ve done in the past and push forward from that. I’m just going to say I hope that they can. I hope that they can add a better page to Virginia’s history.”

Mickens said she believes those who have staked out a position against the ERA haven’t faced the difficulties and discrimination many women have. For instance, in response to Ransone’s statement in the House committee that effectively stalled the ratification effort, Mickens said she hoped Ransone would hear from women who have felt marginalized.

“I would really just encourage her to think about other people who may not be in her same position — who do need guaranteed equality under the law because they are not seen as equals in society whatsoever,” she said.

Megan Tracy, associate professor of anthropology

Tracy, like Mickens and Rogers has also been a part of VAratifyERA and is disappointed that the ERA is unlikely to pass in Virginia this session. It’s especially frustrating, she said, in light of strong support among Virginians and pointed to a December 2018 poll from Christopher Newport University showing 81% of Virginia voters supported ratification.

“I think the crazy thing for us is that we have polls that demonstrate that this is something Virginia voters support, across demographics and across party lines,” she said. “So it seems kinda ridiculous that this isn’t actually happening and that the will of Virginia voters is being thwarted in disrespect.”

For Tracy, the effort isn’t about solving one particular problem or righting a specific wrong. She said it’s about safeguarding an ideal.

“I do think that we as Americans pride ourselves on these ideas of equality, and if this is the case then making that affirmation and putting it into the Constitution where it can have real, legal effects is something we all should be pursuing,” she said.

After all, she said, there’s little point in her dwelling on how much pay inequality and employment prospects of mothers have cost women over the decades.

“I can’t even calculate those things because that’s where you really start to tip off into anger,” she said. “And at this point, I really just want to see it done.”

ERA VA button

A vintage pro-ERA button courtesy of Valerie Sulfaro.

Valerie Sulfaro, professor of political science:

Sulfaro has been an advocate for the ERA since her childhood. She recalled being in 8th grade in her public speaking class and choosing to write a speech urging the ERA’s ratification.

“I was very passionate about this at the time.  And, my mom helped me edit and practice my speech,” Sulfaro said. “She, too, was an advocate.”

Sulfaro said she also remembered some women in the 1970s, such as Phyllis Schlafly, argued that women shouldn’t compete with men in the workplace and that the “ideal woman” should focus on domestic work. Those perspectives advanced by Schlafly, who died in 2016, are the focus of an organization set up in her name.

“I think they, like Schlaflytruly believe that women shouldn’t be doing all of the things that men do. And, they don’t want trans or gender non-conforming Americans to be treated the same as the rest of us. But, like Schlafly, they don’t want to have those discussions because most people don’t share those views.”

Sulfaro also said those who want to relegate women only to domestic duties ignore the economic circumstances of many women.

“Poor women in American have always been part of the workforce, and it has not been a choice for them,” she said.

And women are increasingly more likely to be the breadwinner in households now. Yet, working conditions are often very different for men and women, she said.

“They are subject to more harassment on the job. They don’t get promoted at the same rate as men,” she said. “And there are myriad of other ways that women still lack equality in today’s society.”

Pete Giesen, practicioner-in-residence of political science at JMU and former Republican state delegate:

Giesen, recalled his first job in the 1950s, working as a buyer for Westinghouse Air Condition Division in Verona. He said he noticed a talented woman named Betty working as a clerk and considered her work as always being “over and above normal.” So he recommended to the purchasing agent that she be promoted to assistant buyer, a salaried position.

Although Giesen’s bosses agreed, he said a corporate vice president had an objection and declared, “We don’t have any girls in those kinds of salaried positions in this corporation, and we’re not going to start now.”

Giesen said workplace cultures have changed since then, but he said he still believes the ERA is necessary to ensure women do not become disadvantaged.

“To make certain that society and our economic business climate and our legislators continue to recognize the importance of women and their talents and the contributions they are now making and should be allowed to continue to make without the fear of simple law changes there is the need of the protection of a constitutional amendment,” he said in an email response to The Citizen.

Giesen said when he first ran for the Virginia’s 10th  House of Delegate district in the mid-‘60s, he faced a sentiment of: “we’ve always done it this way — why change?” He countered with his own slogan: “Let’s Keep the Pressure On” to urge the public to see a need for change. Giesen said that approach can work now.

“This can happen with the ratification of the ERA, in my opinion,” he said, “if those in favor continue to promote it with reasonable arguments, good sense and sound promotions.”

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