“Reports of the ERA’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated” (Part 1)

This is the first in a multi-part series examining the half-century fight to add women to the U.S. Constitution—and a game plan on where we go from here.

Check back every Wednesday for a new installment.


Part 1: “We Want In!”

On the afternoon of January 15, hundreds of women packed the gallery of the Virginia House as delegates voted on whether to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and make Virginia the 38th and final state needed to enshrine the ERA in the U.S. Constitution.

equal rights amendment
State Dels. Jennifer Carroll Foy—center, in red—and Hala Ayala—standing behind her—sponsored the ERA ratification bill in the Virginia House. (Julia Rendleman / The New York Times)

When House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D)—the first female and first Jewish speaker in Virginia—announced a 59–41 vote in favor of ratification, the women in the gallery erupted in cheers, waving their arms and hugging each other.

“Today is a major victory for women and girls throughout the country,” declared Del. Hala Ayala (D), who cosponsored the ERA ratification bill along with chief sponsor Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D)—both women of color elected for the first time in 2017.

For decades, Republican leadership had blocked the ratification bill from a floor vote in the Virginia House. But in 2017, Democrats flipped 15 seats, decreasing the Republicans’ 66–34 majority to a razor-thin 51–49 margin.

Then in 2019, Democrats—backed by tremendous get-out-the-vote efforts by feminist groups—flipped the legislature, gaining control of both the House and the Senate.

As a result, women stepped into key leadership positions.

Filler-Corn became the first woman speaker in the 400-year history of the Virginia House.

equal rights amendment
House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) during the floor session of the Virginia House of Delegates at the State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020.

Louise Lucas became the first woman and first African American president pro tempore of the Senate.

Charniele Herring became the first African American and the first woman to be House majority leader.

The leadership made quick work of passing the ERA.

Now, the Trump administration and conservative state attorneys general are trying to block recognition of the amendment, despite polling showing massive public support for the ERA. The vast majority of respondents—men and women; Republicans, Democrats and Independents—want the ERA, and most think the ERA is already a part of the Constitution. Nearly two- thirds believe that the ERA would have a positive impact for women.

But hostile attorneys general from Alabama, Mississippi and South Dakota have sued to prevent the archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, from certifying that the conditions for ratification have been met. Donald Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, backed them up with a 38-page opinion arguing that the time line for ratification expired in 1979.

“The Trump administration has concocted a scheme to try to nullify the will of millions of Americans,” Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring declared.

Herring has filed a civil suit along with the attorneys general from Nevada and Illinois—the 36th and 37th states, respectively, to ratify the ERA—arguing that the time line is invalid and that the executive branch (including Barr) has no role in the ratification of an amendment. Their suit demanded that the archivist certify the amendment.

In addition to the AGs’ lawsuit, feminist advocacy groups Equal Means Equal and The Yellow Roses, a group of high school-aged feminists, has filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts demanding that the U.S. archivist certify the ERA. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives has approved a bipartisan resolution to remove the time line.

At a press conference celebrating the resolution’s passage, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said, holding up a pocket-size copy of the U.S. Constitution: “Our message here today is quite simple. We want in.”

Yet despite some bipartisan support for the ERA in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is now blocking a vote on the resolution.

“The leadership needs to change,” says Feminist Majority Foundation president (and Ms.publisher) Eleanor Smeal, who for part of the 1970s and ’80s was president of the National Organization for Women, which led the ERA fight. Smeal told Ms. that McConnell’s refusal to allow a vote on the resolution echoes earlier fights for the ERA.


Keep reading:


This piece is excerpted from the Spring 2020 issue of Ms.

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About

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is a Professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. Her 2007 book The Women's Movement Against Sexual Harassment won the National Women’s Studies Association Sara A. Whaley Book Prize. Her second book, Fighting the U.S. Youth Sex Trade: Gender, Race, and Politics, tells the story of activism against youth involvement in the sex trade in the United States between 1970 and 2015. Baker is the President of the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts.