The Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates defeated two efforts to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment on Thursday, dooming the gender equality measure in the final stretch of the legislative session.
The vote was met with shouts of “Shame on Virginia!” and “You’re embarrassing!” from ERA advocates in the House gallery, as well as a smattering of applause from social conservatives who oppose the ERA.
The House deadlocked 50-50 on a rules change that would have allowed the ERA to be brought to the floor for a vote. Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, who had spoken in favor of the ERA and is facing a difficult re-election in a swing district, voted with the chamber’s 49 Democrats.
But the tied vote meant the ERA failed in the House, despite passing the state Senate last month on a bipartisan, 26-14 vote.
House Democrats, who are likely to use Thursday’s vote as an election-year rallying cry, made multiple unsuccessful attempts to revive the ERA resolution after it failed in a GOP-led subcommittee. With the General Assembly set to adjourn at the end of the week, Thursday was their last chance.
ERA advocates have made their presence felt throughout the session, lining hallways and holding up banners. Earlier this week, an ERA supporter was arrested on a charge of indecent exposure for exposing her breast in a re-enactment of the state seal, which features a goddess standing over a prostrate man representing tyranny.
Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, who has championed the ERA, gave a floor speech Thursday in which she accused the “powerful men” opposing the ERA of giving in to the same type of fear that fueled Virginia’s Massive Resistance movement against school desegregation.
“Fear has caused this body to be on the wrong side of history too many times and for far too long,” Carroll Foy said. “You can either walk in fear. Or you can walk in faith. And facts. And join the majority of states and our brothers and sisters on the Senate side, and pass the Equal Rights Amendment.”
House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, took exception to that characterization, saying ERA supporters had engaged in “fear-mongering” by portraying Republicans as anti-woman. In other states that have ratified the ERA, Gilbert said, pro-choice groups have used equal protection language as a legal basis to expand abortion rights.
“To accuse those of us who have legitimate concerns about this of being merely out to oppress people, to treat them as second-class citizens because we value the sanctity of life, among all these other reasons, is absurd,” Gilbert said. “And it’s unfortunate.”
The proposed federal amendment says: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” It provides that Congress shall have the power to enforce its provisions “by appropriate legislation.”
The ERA was approved by Congress in the 1970s, but it wasn’t added to the Constitution because it did not reach ratification by 38 states. Activists have made a new push for state ratification, calling it a long-overdue step and an unequivocal declaration that women are equal to men in the eyes of the law.
Virginia Republicans who have spoken against the ERA have argued that the window to ratify the amendment has already closed. If the ERA were to take effect and men and women were declared entirely equal, they have said, it could lead to unintended consequences, such as young women being drafted into the military.
Democrats have dismissed those arguments as excuses for maintaining the status quo and holding women back.
The Democrats’ attempts to revive the ERA on the House floor also sparked debate about the nature of the chamber’s rules and whether the GOP majority was wielding its power to deny a vote on a resolution that had enough support to pass.
Gilbert said the House’s vote Thursday was “not about the ERA,” but about refusing special treatment for one issue.
“That’s not the way we do business,” Gilbert said.
Democrats said the procedural vote was a way to give all 100 delegates a chance to vote on a measure with broad public support.
“If you don’t like it, and you share the gentleman from Shenandoah’s opinion of it, get it to the floor and vote no,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax.
As ERA advocates left the House gallery in vocal frustration, officials briefly closed the doors to the House chamber to shield the commotion.
“I defended this country. And they should be defending me,” said Daphne Portis, a Richmond woman wearing a U.S. Air Force sweatshirt. “This should’ve been done a long time ago. I just cannot believe it. I’m absolutely disgusted.”