Virginia Just Became the 38th State to Ratify the Equal Rights Amendment

Supermajority Education Fund

January 16, 2020

On Wednesday, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a constitutional amendment that would provide for the legal equality of the sexes and prohibit discrimination based on sex. Only 38 states were needed to ratify the ERA, but the GOP-majority Senate may still prevent the amendment’s inclusion in the Constitution.

The ERA was initially introduced in 1923 by Alice Paul, a key figure in the passage of the 19th amendment that granted women the right to vote, and the National Women’s political party at Seneca Falls. “We shall not be safe until the principle of equal rights is written into the framework of our government,” she said at the time.

Nearly 50 years later, in 1972, the ERA was passed by the U.S. House and Senate, thanks in large part to the work of New York Representative Bella Abzug and many feminist activists, and sent to the states for ratification into the Constitution. The states were given seven years for 38 — or three-quarters — of them to ratify the amendment, but due to conservative backlash, only 35 successfully ratified it in time. 

In recent years, however, activists have employed a “three-state strategy” to reach 38; Nevada ratified the amendment in 2017, Illinois did so in 2018, and Virginia now makes 38. But the fight to pass necessary legislation is not over. HuffPost reported last week that the Trump administration’s Department of Justice is backing Republicans’ efforts to block the ERA from ratification. In December, three attorneys filed a lawsuit in an Alabama federal court to block the ERA from being ratified. The attorneys, Steve Marshall (Alabama), Jeff Landry (Attorney General, Louisiana), and Jason Ravnsborg (Attorney General, South Dakota) argued that the deadline for ratifying the amendment has “expired” and that the “three-state strategy” is not constitutional. 

But supporters of the ERA are staying in the fight. On January 7, ERA backers filed a lawsuit in a U.S. District Court in Boston that argues that the previous ratification deadline imposed by Congress is not binding. The next step is for Congress to pass legislation that will remove the seven-year deadline (which was eventually extended to 1982) for the ERA to become part of the Constitution. 

“The victory in Virginia means that we have reached the most important ratification goal post,” Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), told Supermajority News. “But we will not stop until the Virginia ratification vote, and the recent votes of Illinois and Nevada are certified by the Archivist of the United States and officially become part of the U.S. Constitution. Hopefully, both the U.S. House and Senate will pass the deadline removal legislation—though Constitutional scholars believe that is not necessary and we will have to work with the president to sign the legislation. In a crucial election year, he may well want to do that.”

Update, Feb. 13: The House voted to extend the 1982 deadline for states to ratify the ERA. The amendment will now go to the Senate.