What You Need to Know About the Equal Rights Amendment Now That It Has Passed in the Virginia Legislature

Nearly 100 years after the 19th Amendment granted some women the right to vote, the upper and lower chambers of Virginia's legislature voted to pass the Equal Rights Amendment on Wednesday—positioning it to be the last state needed to ratify it and make it part of the U.S. Constitution.

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), is a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sex. In full, the amendment reads, "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

While proponents of the ERA have said it is an important step to ensuring that people of every sex are assured equal treatment by the federal government, detractors argue that it is vague, unnecessary and would not seriously promote equality among the genders.

Suffragist Alice Paul proposed the first version of the amendment in 1923, and it was introduced in Congress that same year. However, since then, it has had a tumultuous and tortuous route to becoming law. As reported by The Washington Post, an amended version of the ERA had to be reintroduced in every Congressional session for nearly 50 years before it passed in 1972.

Article V of the Constitution dictates that a proposed amendment can be added if "when ratified by the Legislatures of three-fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof." When the Constitution came into effect, only 10 of the original 13 states needed to ratify an amendment for it to become part of the supreme law of the land. But, as the number of states in the Union has since swelled to 50, the legislatures of at least 38 must ratify a proposed amendment like the ERA in order to add it to the Constitution.

When the ERA passed in 1972, Congress declared that its ratification process must be complete within seven years. As such, Congress would need to remove the deadline before the amendment could move forward.

According to information from the Alice Paul Institute, 22 state legislatures ratified the amendment in 1972 alone. However, progress toward ratification in the ensuing years was stymied by the rhetoric of outspoken opponents of the ERA like Phyllis Schlafly, leader of the Eagle Forum.

The Eagle Forum still argues on its website that the ERA would negatively impact American society by not shrinking the gender wage gap, expanding rights to abortion and having other effects, such as "removing gender designations for bathrooms, locker rooms, jails and hospital rooms."

However, pro-ERA women's rights organizations like the League of Women Voters continued to push for ratification across different states, after the seven-year deadline, and even following the extended 1982 deadline had passed, according to the Alice Paul Institute. By the end of the last decade, only 37 of the 38 required state legislatures had ratified it.

But since both the House of Delegates and the Senate of the Virginia General Assembly passed the amendment on Wednesday, the Old Dominion is in position to become the 38th state to ratify the amendment. It passed by a 58-42 margin in the House of Delegates and a 28-12 vote in the Senate, according to the Post.

Rally Commemorating Congressional Passage of ERA
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and representatives of women's groups hold a rally to mark the 40th anniversary of congressional passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) outside the U.S. Capitol March 22, 2012 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty

So, what is next for the ERA?

Kati Hornung, campaign coordinator for VAratifyERA, a grassroots organization dedicated to making Virginia the 38th state to ratify the amendment, told Newsweek in an interview that she could see "the light at the end of the tunnel" now that the two resolutions to ratify the amendment have both passed in their respective chambers.

"Basically, the Senate has to take up the House's resolution, and the House has to take up the Senate's resolution," she said. "Technically, we only need one of those to pass. Once one resolution has passed both chambers, we're officially done [with ratification]."

Hornung said that once of the resolutions passes in both chambers, it will move to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. There, the U.S. House of Representatives—mostly comprised of Democrats—is expected to vote to remove the 1982 deadline on the ERA. After that, it is up to the U.S. Senate to decide whether or not to actually get rid of the deadline.

However, a legal battle over the possibility of ratification is also expected to ensue, as the U.S. Department of Justice issued a finding on January 9 that declared that the conflicting deadlines preclude ratification of the ERA, as reported by The Washington Post.

But some, like Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, have said that they believe that it is still possible for the states to ratify the ERA.

"When Virginia becomes the 38th state to ratify the ERA, I am going to do everything in my power to make sure that the will of Virginians is carried out and the ERA is added to our Constitution, as it should be," Herring said, radio station WAMU reported.

As for VAratifyERA, Hornung told Newsweek that the organization was already preparing to take the next steps in passing the amendment.

"Many people in our leadership have shifted, and we have just started the National Women's Political Caucus of Virginia," she said. "There's a lot of work to be done in Virginia. It feels like if they can't do the easy way, then we're going to have to fight a lot harder to make sure that it happens the hard way, too."