Poster Advocating the Equal Rights Amendment, ca. 1972
Virginia has proved hesitant to embrace the federal legislation to support woman's rights. First, the state initially failed to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, which became part of the United States Constitution in August 1920. Virginia belatedly ratified the amendment in 1952. Years later, in the 1970s, leaders in the state rebuked efforts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which the United States Congress submitted to the states in 1972 and which would have made discrimination based on gender unconstitutional. A proposal for such an amendment, named in honor of suffragist Lucretia Mott, was originally presented to Congress in 1923 by the National Women's Party. In 1940 it was reworded to state “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Between 1972 and 1977, thirty-five states ratified the ERA, and even though a few rescinded their votes, the amendment stood just three states short of success. Virginia, along with many other conservative states in the South and Midwest, refused to support what would have been the Twenty-Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Groups like the League of Women Voters of Virginia and the National Organization for Women supported passage, but they faced resistance from national anti-ERA groups like Stop Taking Our Privileges (STOP ERA). Opponents focused on how the proposed amendment might negatively impact state's rights issues, as well as the changes that might be wrought to traditional cultural values, including the potential for women to be drafted into the military, legal protection for gay marriage, the creation of unisex restrooms, and the abolition of gendered organizations like the Boy Scouts of America.
After proponents failed to gain traction in 1972 and 1973, they formed the Virginia Equal Rights Amendment Ratification Council in 1974, which grew to include thirty different advocacy groups. Supporters of the ERA participated in rallies in favor of ratification in Virginia. Marches held in the month of January during the years of 1976, 1978, and 1982 attracted as many as 1,000, 3,000, and 7,500 participants, respectively. In 1982, as the campaign for passage became tenser, two women were arrested for disorderly conduct and one woman for forcibly removed from a meeting of the House Committee on Privileges and Election, the leadership of which was maneuvering to kill the bill.
Seven years after its passage by the United States Congress, the ERA expired on June 30, 1982, without garnering the necessary ratifications of three-fourths of the state legislatures. The amendment was considered in the Virginia General Assembly every year between 1973 and 1982, championed many of those years by Delegate Dorothy S. McDiarmid, of Fairfax County, but never made it out of committee. Despite the failure to ratify the ERA, efforts still continue to have it added to the United States Constitution.
1. What was the Equal Rights Amendment?
2. When was the original language introduced to the U.S. Congress? When did Congress approve it?
3. What arguments did opponents of the ERA make about the negative implications of its passage?
1. Debate whether the ERA deserves passage today. In what areas of American society do women struggle? Is the ERA the answer?
2. Compare and contrast the civil rights movement with the woman's rights movement. What strategies did they employ?
Whitney, Sharon. The Equal Rights Amendment: The History and the Movement. New York: Watts, 1984.