A 1979 demonstration in support of the Equal Rights Amendment in Florida. (State Library and Archives of Florida)

In May, Illinois became the 37th state to sign off on the federal Equal Rights Amendment, leaving the decades-long effort to guarantee men and women equal stature in the U.S. Constitution just one state shy of ratification.

Now advocates are looking to Virginia as the most likely candidate to tip the effort over the edge.

“It just seems like we’re poised to push it through this next session,” said Kati Hornung, a leader of VAratifyERA, a group that plans to roll out a renewed state-wide ratification campaign next month. She cited increased momentum following Illinois’ vote, a Republican chief patron for the legislation in the Virginia state Senate and efforts to address objections raised by opponents in years past.

The amendment was first proposed 95 years ago. Advocates say it remains important even as women have gained other important legal protections because women are still vulnerable in the federal judicial system, where, for instance, allegations of sexual discrimination are held to a lesser standard than allegations of racial discrimination.

But the measure has not fared well historically in the General Assembly, where Republican leaders have said they support equal rights for women but cited technical concerns that the Congressional deadline for ratification expired in 1982. The amendment’s supporters argue that Congress has the power to extend or eliminate the deadline and that it should not be a barrier to the measure’s consideration.

The chair of the Senate Rules Committee, Sen. Ryan T. McDougle, R-Hanover, told a packed hearing room during this year’s session that an official at the National Archives and Records Administration has informed him that the “the ERA is a ‘failed amendment’ and therefore improper for the General Assembly to vote on it,” according to The Washington Post.

The measure died in the committee on a 9-5 vote.

Since then, supporters have confirmed that the National Archives and Records Administration has not taken such a position.

“The Archivist of the United States has not taken such a stance and has never issued an opinion on this matter either officially or unofficially,” said the agency’s director of communications, James Pritchett, in a statement.

McDougle did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.

This year, advocates are also encouraging Republican supporters to play a more prominent role in the debate.

Among them is Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond, who has agreed to shepherd the legislation through the Senate during the next session as its lead patron. He’s also hosting a screening of “Iron Jawed Angels,” a film following Alice Paul and other suffragists as they pushed for the right to vote.

“I’m hopeful that it will have a broader base of bipartisan support,” Sturtevant said. “It is truly one of the most common sense good things that we can and should do and that should be enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. It’s in the Virginia Constitution. It’s in the Code of Virginia. But it’s something that is not truly fully protected unless it’s in the U.S. Constitution.”

In past years, Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, has carried the Senate version of the bill. Like Sturtevant, he says he’s hopeful for passage in the coming session.

“I think there’s going to be tremendous pressure,” he said. “There’s going to be national interest. I’ve already had people from around the country calling me asking what needs to happen to get Virginia over the line.

“I think the issue is going to become a lot bigger than which committee it should be heard by or whether it should technically be ratified. If nobody’s noticed, women are pretty pissed off right now.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned, a Lexington native, has a decade’s worth of experience in journalism, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He also has the awards to show for it, including taking a pair of first-place honors at the Virginia Press Association awards earlier this year for investigative reporting and feature writing. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass.