Ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment [ERA] was already being hotly debated in the Virginia General Assembly when I became a member of the House of Delegates in 1978. A hearing on ratification ended with twelve of twenty members of the committee voting against ratification; they were dubbed “the dirty dozen” by the primarily women supporters of the amendment. The vote caused such a rowdy protest by advocates that the police actually carried some of the women from the room.
As a new member of the House of Delegates who ran on a platform supporting ratification of the ERA, I decided to take a new approach. I wanted to show that the ERA was in keeping with Virginia’s history. If I could show that Thomas Jefferson would support it if he were alive today, the Assembly would likely ratify it or so I reasoned. I wrote to Professor Dumas Malone, author of the 6-volume definitive biography of Thomas Jefferson, and asked him if Jefferson were alive in today’s modern society is it not the case that he would support the ERA. Professor Malone did not take the bait; he refused as a historian to speculate on the future. My plan failed, and Virginia has still not ratified the ERA despite our repeated attempts to have it do so.
While Virginia is home to the greatest spokespersons for human rights with George Mason’s Declaration of Rights, Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom and James Madison’s Bill of Rights, the Commonwealth has been among the slowest of the states in embracing any expansion of the scope of human rights beyond their limited 18th century definition. Although women secured the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, Virginia did not ratify the amendment until 1952. When many states were moving toward accepting marriage of gay and lesbian couples, Virginia adopted an amendment to its constitution in 2006 prohibiting same-sex marriage. The amendment has been over-ridden by federal court decisions. Social practices and acceptance move much faster than the Virginia legislature, the same has been the case with LGBTQ rights.
For generations Virginians have proclaimed the rights of states. They used that argument to hang onto their slaves leading ultimately to the Civil War. States’ rights was used as an argument to discriminate against Black residents and to support Massive Resistance leading to closing schools rather than desegregating them. Again federal court decisions and the Civil Rights Act forced Virginia and the other southern states to recognize equal protection of the law regardless of race. Virginia voting laws are now under review by a federal court because of a concern that they discriminate against certain classes of voters with the voter identification requirements that have been struck down in four other states.
Virginia and the required number of states may not approve ratification of the ERA, but we have already seen the first woman ever to be nominated for the presidency by a major political party and may in my lifetime have seen not only the first Catholic president and the first Black president but also soon to be the first woman president!