“When the ERA came up in 1977, Harry Byrd, Sr.’s conservative values had not just evaporated. The debate was: ‘How could we vote for this? Dormitories would become integrated! Women would be allowed into men’s rooms! Women would be able to take on combat roles in the military!’” —State Sen. Barbara Favola
Might Virginia ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 2019? Three Arlington advocates of equal rights addressed the possibility at the Committee of 100’s monthly meeting on Dec. 12. They were raising public awareness of the ERA, especially how close we are to passing an amendment that would put women on the same footing as other groups protected under the law.
The discussion at Marymount University was sponsored by the Committee of 100, a group of Arlington citizens who have provided a forum for candid, non-partisan discussion of current issues in and around Arlington County for 60 years.
Julia Tanner addressed the issue from the point of view of someone who is spearheading the local effort to ratify the ERA. An attorney active in “We of Action Virginia” (WofaVA), a local political group, Tanner chairs the ERA Committee of the Arlington League of Women Voters, and is a founder of the Virginia Equal Rights Coalition, which works with VAratifyERA for ratification by Virginia of the U.S. ERA. She opened with the wording of the amendment: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."
She discussed its history, and why it is needed. Current laws provide only a patchwork of legal protection and are subject to uneven enforcement. Also, the U.S. Constitution does not protect against sex discrimination as strongly as it protects against discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin.
“Sex discrimination remains a very real problem: we've all seen the #MeToo movement,” she said.
Amendments provide greater security against discrimination than laws, which can be repealed by a simple majority vote. Tanner spoke about potential paths through the Virginia General Assembly, winding up with calls to action, including asking all present to sign the petition, varatifyera.org/petition.
Marcy Foster, director, Arlington County Department of Human Resources, spoke about Arlington’s role in fostering equality between the sexes on a local level. She noted that there are 3,700 employees of Arlington County: 46 percent of them are women; 48 percent of supervisors are women. The average employee age in Arlington county employment is 45. New hires are 50 percent women. Forty-eight percent of terminations are female. The average tenure of a woman in an Arlington County job is 10 years: for men it is 11.5 years.
Why is this important? Arlington County is unique in the gender equality efforts it makes. Other counties and localities do not have those numbers. Foster said Arlington got to this point by making a serious effort to deploy diverse interview panels and foster a respectful workplace. The county has paid parental leave, increasing it from 2 to 4 weeks. It was the first county in Northern Virginia to offer this leave. The county engages in training for all employees on unconscious bias and respect in the workplace. They have lactation rooms for nursing mothers, flexible work schedules, and negotiable pay.
Asked if passage of the ERA, would change anything Arlington does for its employees, Foster indicated there are subtle difference that might be affected by ERA passage but Arlington had set a high bar for providing equal pay and job opportunities to its women. Other parts of Virginia are not so fortunate, she said.
Questions from the audience indicated some familiarity with the ERA from women who remembered the fight for the ERA in the 1970s as well as the fight in the Virginia Assembly to vote on Virginia’s support for the ERA in 2018. If the ERA were to pass in the Virginia Assembly, it would bring the national effort just one shy of the 38 states needed for ratification. But efforts to pass the ratification bill failed when one House committee refused to take up the matter, and the Senate panel defeated it 9 to 5. All the “no“ votes were cast by men.
State Sen. Favola (D-31) spoke about the challenges the ERA faces in Richmond. “If passing it was easy we would have passed it by now,” she said.
Favola chairs the Virginia Assembly’s Committee on Sexual Assault, and is engaged in supporting women’s rights. “I personally believe it’s the right thing to do,” she said. She explained why it was taking so long: “I’m going to go back in history” she said. “We were just a decade beyond the death of Harry Byrd, Sr. in the 1970s.” Byrd had colored the political views of many for decades: deep conservatism reigned. Byrd had opposed everything, from the New Deal to the New Frontier. “Cultural change doesn’t take place in 10 years,” Favola said. “When the ERA came up in 1977, those conservative values had not just evaporated. The debate was: ‘How could we vote for this? Dormitories would become integrated! Women would be allowed into men’s rooms! Women would be able to take on combat roles in the military!’”
“Although 75-80 percent of Virginians were for it,” Favola continued, “Phyllis Schlafly was most effective in keeping the lid on women’s rights. She told conservatives: ‘Let’s not let a tiny minority change the role most women want to play (staying at home).’” Schlafly mobilized a religious coalition and the ERA died.
Favola continued: “People are afraid of change. I’ve been governing for 21 years — 14 of them locally — and even positive change is hard to legislate.”
She explained she couldn’t even move the ERA out of committee; it was voted down on a technicality, that the amendment only had until 1982 to be ratified and after that it would be impossible. “That is not correct,” Favola said. State Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), sponsor of the VA Senate bill, has cited an informal advisory from the state attorney general’s office: “Congress has the power to extend the ratification deadline.”
Favola ended on a positive note: “I think we will get the ERA through committee,” she said. “And if it does get on the floor it will pass. We will just have to figure out a way to get that out of committee and help the Republicans who vote for it.”
Asked by the audience which committee would be best positioned to get the ERA vote accomplished, the consensus was that the Rules Committee headed by Del. Mark Cole (R-Fredericksburg) would probably not be the choice of ERA proponents. Speakers, and Del. Patrick Hope, (D-Arlington) who was in the audience, agreed it would be best to let the speaker determine which committee is the right one.
Patricia O’Grady asked the speakers: “I’ve heard that four states rescinded the ERA …. where does that leave the ERA?” Tanner and Favola noted that the 14th amendment is in the U.S. Constitution today because Congress would not accept rescissions.
As the meeting wound down, one questioner asked, “What does the ERA say that will improve women’s situation?”
Tanner replied that the U.S. Constitution currently protects equality of rights if you are discriminated against based on color, national origin, or religion. If a case comes before a judge, the 14th amendment guarantees the highest level of scrutiny on such a case. But sex discrimination cases don’t get that highest level of scrutiny: they only get intermediate scrutiny. The ERA would simply bring sex discrimination to the same level as the other forms of discrimination.”
Tanner reminded attendees to sign the petition and talk about the ERA. “Lawmakers are looking at poll numbers: if we had 80 percent in favor of the ERA in the ‘70s, it is likely much higher than that now with the increasing egalitarianism of young men and women.” Lawmakers need to know the ERA is not moribund in the minds of Virginians. For more, see https://varatifyera.org.