RICHMOND — Supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment are confident Virginia is on the verge of becoming the critical 38th state to ratify the gender equality measure.
Despite broad support for the amendment in the state, the ERA’s prospects nationally are substantially more complicated.
The proposed 28th amendment to the US Constitution faces a host of likely legal challenges and vehement opposition from conservative activists who depict the ERA as a threat to their stances on abortion and transgender rights.
The passage of time is also a factor. When the measure passed Congress in 1972, lawmakers attached a 1977 ratification deadline to it, then extended it to 1982. While the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives is likely to extend the deadline again, the Republican-controlled Senate may balk, increasing the chances of litigation. Lawsuits also could be waged over an attempt by five states in the 1970s to rescind their initial support for the amendment.
At least one legal challenge is already underway. Alabama, Louisiana, and South Dakota filed a lawsuit in federal court in mid-December seeking to prevent the US archivist from accepting a new ratification.
In Virginia, the ERA’s future is bright: Democrats who seized control of the state Legislature in November say there is unanimous support.
Virginia supporters have framed ERA ratification as a chance to rebut the state’s long history of racist and intolerant policies.
In the past, Virginia ‘‘fought against desegregation . . . fought against interracial marriage . . . fought against women’s right to vote,” said Jennifer Carroll Foy, chief patron of the House ratification resolution who is also a member of the black caucus and one of the first women admitted to the historically all-male Virginia Military Institute. “And it is only poetic justice that now we stand on the right side of history and finally give women their full constitutional equality.”
Emily Martin, general counsel for the National Women’s Law Centerhopes that a campaign for ERA ratification will kindle a new surge of women’s activism comparable to the women’s marches of 2016 and the subsequent emergence of the #MeToo movement.
“Mobilization around ensuring women’s equality is really important at this moment when the Trump administration is going backward in so many ways that are harmful to women and girls,” she said.
Some of the ERA-related arguments surfacing now are similar to those that flared in the 1970s. Would ratification mean that women, are subject to the military draft? Would it undermine workplace laws intended to protect women?
But some of the liveliest debate over the coming months will likely deal with issues that have evolved significantly since the ’70s: abortion access and the rights of transgender people.
While abortion has been legal nationwide since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, many Republican-controlled states have passed tough antiabortion laws in recent years and are hopeful the high court might repeal or weaken Roe.
Antiabortion activists worry that the ERA, if ratified, would be used by abortion-rights supporters to quash abortion restrictions on grounds they specifically discriminate against women.
“That’s the whole reason ERA has been brought back,” said Anne Schlafly Cori of the conservative advocacy group Eagle Forum.
“Any vote for the ERA is a vote for abortion.”
Martin affirmed that adding the amendment to the constitution would enable courts to rule that restrictions on abortion “perpetuate gender inequality.”
The issue of transgender rights is likely to be a divisive topic in the coming ERA debate. Some ERA opponents are trying to kindle alarm over the amendment’s ability to ensure nationwide protections for transgender women seeking to use women-only restrooms and locker rooms.
“The ERA would be used to impose the most radical consequences of the new ‘gender revolution,’ which allows men to declare themselves women and vice versa,” said Penny Nance, CEO of Concerned Women for America.
Jennifer Boylan, a transgender writer who teaches at Barnard College in New York City, said
“The ERA won’t take away anyone’s rights; it will simply make the country a little fairer.”