Updated March 17 at 2:42 p.m. PT.
Two critically important women’s rights bills passed in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday: the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). They now head to the Senate.
“We are now one Senate floor vote away from adding the ERA into the Constitution and reauthorizing VAWA so that our generation and all future generations will not face persistent sex discrimination and violence, but rather will have new opportunities under the law,” said Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and long-time ERA leader.
The Equal Rights Amendment
On Wednesday, by a vote of 222 to 204, the U.S. House passed H.J. Res 17, a bi-partisan joint resolution introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) to remove an arbitrary timeline for ERA ratification. Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have introduced an identical resolution in the Senate.
“Since our country’s founding, women have been left out of the Constitution—intentionally,” said Rep. Speier, co-chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus. “We were second-class citizens deprived of basic rights to vote, enter most jobs, or own property. To this day, we are paid less for our work, violated with impunity, and disproportionately suffer the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic. Enough is enough. With President Biden and Vice President Harris at the helm, this will finally be the year we ratify the ERA to the Constitution.”
Feminists have been fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment for 98 years. Congress passed the ERA in 1972, but with a seven-year ratification time line in the preamble to the amendment. By 1979, the amendment fell three states short of ratification. Feminists battled in Congress to pass an extension of the time line, which they got until 1982, but no additional states voted to ratify the ERA—until 2017.
After Trump took office, ratifications resumed, with Nevada ratifying in 2017 and Illinois in 2019. In January of 2020, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the ERA—the final one needed—but the Trump administration blocked the archivist from certifying the amendment, and the Department of Justice (then headed by Attorney General Bill Barr) issued an opinion arguing that the final three states’ ratifications were too late and did not count.
In February of 2020, the House of Representatives passed a bill with bipartisan support dissolving the timeline for ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment (which has been extended once before), but Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell blocked a vote on the bill in the Senate.
Now, with Biden and Harris in the White House, who campaigned on enacting a reauthorization of VAWA, and Democratic control of both chambers of Congress, ERA advocates are making a strong push for long-overdue recognition of women’s equality in the U.S. Constitution.
When finally recognized, the Equal Rights Amendment will prohibit the denial of equal rights on the basis of sex as one of our foundational constitutional principles.
“This is a historic and monumental step forward for all 94 percent of Americans who agree that women should have equal rights in our Constitution,” said Carol Jenkins, president and CEO of the ERA Coalition. “In a time of deep division, here is something we all agree on: There can be no time limit on equality.”
Take Action on the ERA
To take action now in support of the ERA, head over to erayes2021.org where you can directly contact your U.S. legislators, share your ERA story, and find an ERA Toolkit with ready-to-post social media images and other advocacy resources!
Violence Against Women Act
In a 244-172 vote, also on Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives also passed the bipartisan Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA) of 2021—a landmark law originally championed by then-Senator Joe Biden in 1994 to support women and all survivors subjected to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. Twenty-nine Republicans voted with Democrats in support of the legislation.
Congress last authorized VAWA eight years ago, but the law expired in September of 2018—for the first time since its original adoption in 1994—because of Republican opposition to the usually bipartisan law. In 2019, the House passed a bill to reauthorize VAWA, but the Republican-controlled Senate blocked the measure.
“This should not be a Democratic or Republican issue,” said President Biden on Wednesday. “It’s a matter of justice and compassion.”
On March 8, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) reintroduced the bipartisan Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2021.
“The last year has demonstrated the immense needs to reauthorize and improve VAWA,” said Chair Nadler. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen a sharp rise in domestic violence and other crimes. As demand for services has increased, service providers have seen funding drop while caseloads skyrocket. … It is imperative that Congress act now to increase funding for victim services, expand training and education for providers, and strengthen and improve VAWA programs to respond to this crisis.”
VAWA also strengthens protections and programs for women in marginalized communities, who experience particularly high rates of violence. To protect Native American women, the law would expand tribes’ jurisdiction over certain crimes in Indian Country and would end impunity for non-Native perpetrators of sexual assault, child abuse co-occurring with domestic violence, stalking, sex trafficking and assaults on tribal law enforcement officers on tribal lands.
Once passed by the Senate, the legislation will ensure expanded funding for victim services, including housing, health care, cash aid, paid leave from employment to deal with the harms of gender-based violence, and unemployment compensation if needed. The law also reauthorizes grant programs to improve the criminal justice responses to gender-based violence, expands allowable uses and invests in prevention.
Finally, the law would close the “boyfriend loophole” in the law by preventing people convicted of stalking or abusing dating partners from buying guns (the law currently only applies to spouses or formerly married partners).
In the U.S., more than one in three women have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. An average of three women are killed by a current or former intimate partner every single day. VAWA provides critical resources to address this epidemic of violence against women.
“As a survivor and a member of Congress, I want to use my power to protect other people from what I have experienced,” said Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.). “With domestic violence cases on the rise during the pandemic, we need the Violence Against Women Act signed into law now. I am proud to stand with my colleagues in introducing this essential legislation because survivors cannot wait.”