Virginia Poised To Ratify Equal Rights Amendment

Jan 5, 2020
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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The Equal Rights Amendment was first passed by Congress in 1972 but only ever ratified by 37 of the 38 states needed to make it part of the Constitution. But now Virginia is expected to soon become that 38th state. The state's legislature returns this week, and it's now controlled by Democrats with a Democratic governor for the first time in more than a quarter century.

NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben has been covering the progress of the ERA and what this could all mean, and she joins us now. Hi, Danielle.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hey, Sarah.

MCAMMON: OK. First of all, this proposed amendment, the Equal Rights Amendment, has been around for decades, as we said.

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

MCAMMON: What does it actually say?

KURTZLEBEN: It's pretty simple. The main text of it is this - equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. So it would explicitly get equal protection on the basis of sex into the Constitution.

MCAMMON: It sounds simple enough. But what effect would this amendment actually have if it's ratified?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So that part is not at all simple because nothing legal is simple. Now, there's a fair bit of uncertainty here. After all, this is an amendment, not a law. So it could affect other laws. It could pave the way for new ones and so on. Legal experts say it could provide more protections in a few areas, particularly domestic violence, as well as in the area of pregnancy discrimination. Now, opponents, like some conservative women's groups - they fear that it will lead to looser restrictions on abortion. And you can bet that abortion will be a major battleground if this proceeds.

Now, proponents of the amendment also say that there is a symbolic or a messaging aspect, you could say, of this amendment that is still very important, even if it is only symbolic. The argument is that we want our rights enshrined in the Constitution, that other countries have done this, that we are lagging behind. We want this for ourselves as well.

MCAMMON: And as we said, this amendment has been around for a long time. There's been a push for this off and on for decades. Why is there a renewed push right now?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, to be clear, for some activists, like you said, this never went away. They've been pushing for this for decades. Now, the ERA, as originally passed by Congress and then sent to the states to ratify in 1972, originally had a deadline on it. That deadline for ratification was ultimately extended to 1982. Now, when 1982 came, only 35 states had ratified the ERA. So in the last three years, that push has really come to the forefront in a few states that felt that they did have the potential to pass it, or at least where activists felt they had the potential to pass it. So in 2017, Nevada ratified it. In 2018, Illinois ratified it. So this has been going on for a few years.

Now, of course, in the last few years, there has been increased attention to women's rights in America. There's been the #MeToo movement. There are women's marches. There has been so much increased energy behind this. So I don't think you can decouple those things from this entirely, but it's hard to say exactly, you know, why this is getting so much success right now.

MCAMMON: And back to Virginia where we started, Democrats in Virginia have promised to take this up, they say, soon after the legislature convenes this week. Then what happens?

KURTZLEBEN: That's a very good question. So there's some legal disagreement over that deadline that I mentioned - whether that deadline applies. Some ERA proponents say, no, it doesn't; it doesn't matter. Plenty of opponents say, yes, it does. Aside from that, three states have already kind of preemptively filed a legal challenge to the ERA, should it be ratified by Virginia. So you can bet there will be legal challenges, which means this will be in the court system for a while.

And on top of that, there is an effort in Congress to retroactively remove the deadline. But then, of course, with a divided Congress, it's not at all clear how successful that push would be. And legal questions will hang over that as well. So there are so many complicating factors here. It is impossible for me to tell you what exactly will happen next.

MCAMMON: NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben, thanks so much.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you, Sarah.

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