Women got a step closer to equality on Tuesday when Virginia turned blue.
For the first time in a generation, Democrats now control both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s office, clearing the way for a bunch of progressive policies, including raising the minimum wage and enacting tougher gun laws.
And the path is also clear for Virginia’s Democratic lawmakers to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which they have been eager to do. It would make Virginia the crucial 38th state to ratify the measure, clearing the three-fourths threshold needed to add it to the Constitution.
Currently, women do not have equal protection under the law. And at this point readers may be thinking: Wait, what?
Right now — perhaps surprisingly to many — women’s rights in the U.S. are a cobbled together mishmash of various laws retrofitted to offer limited rights.
Thanks to the legal work Ruth Bader Ginsburg did before joining the Supreme Court, the high court has looked to the 14th Amendment to protect women from discrimination. But even under that measure, which was passed after the Civil War and meant to protect the rights of formerly enslaved Americans, discrimination against women does not receive the same level of scrutiny as it does when levied against African Americans or other protected groups.
That’s made it difficult for women to get equal pay for equal work; equal access to health care; and protection against domestic violence, harassment in the workplace, and sexual assault.
The ERA was first proposed in 1923, passed by Congress in 1972 and then sent out to the states for ratification. Only 35 states ratified it before the Congress-set deadline of 1982.
The effort to amend the Constitution to include women largely died after that — thanks, in particular, to the arguments of anti-feminist Phylis Schlaflly, who said equal rights would somehow hurt housewives, cause chaos in bathrooms, and lead to gay marriage.
Then in 2015, Nevada state Senator Pat Spearman realized that there was nothing stopping her from getting her state to ratify the amendment. Two years later, Nevada did just that, revitalizing the movement.
“There’s no shelf life for equality,” Spearman told HuffPost on Wednesday.
Illinois ratified the ERA in 2018, getting the tally up to 37 states. All eyes turned to Virginia.
But in January, Republicans in Virginia refused to vote the ERA out of committee, killing its chances at the time but amping up the efforts of activists in the state.
One of those activists was a 15-year-old Arlington high schooler named Rosie Couture, a self-described “political nerd.”
She told HuffPost she didn’t initially know what the ERA was, but once she learned about it, she could not believe it was “not a thing.”
Couture went on to create Generation Ratify, a group that now has about 200 members and works with activists across the state to push for equal rights for women.
“I was like, ‘Where are all the kids?’” she said. “I wanted to engage the youth in the fight.”
Like all ERA activists, Couture laments that women are simply left out of the Constitution — except in the 19th Amendment, which only deals with the right to vote.
“There are laws, but they don’t have teeth. Like Band-Aids on a bullet wound,” she said.
On Tuesday, as the election results became clear, activists and Virginia Democrats, many of whom campaigned on the amendment, started talking about the ERA almost immediately.
“One thing we are going to need to do right away is pass the Equal Rights Amendment in a Virginia,” Dick Saslaw, the state Senate Democratic leader, told a crowd, according to CNN. Others echoed the sentiment.
“We have been on this mission for nearly 100 years. Tonight, we are finally within reach of true equality for girls and women in the United States, thanks to the voters of Virginia and supporters across the country,” Jessica Neuwirth and Carol Jenkins, co-presidents of The ERA Coalition, said in a statement.
“It’s been a loooong time, but we will finally be in the Constitution,” Spearman texted HuffPost early on Wednesday.
“We are the only industrial country in the world not to have women in the Constitution,” she said later by phone.
The Trump administration’s steady drip of hostility toward women helped turbocharge the fight for the ERA, said Kate Kelly, a human rights attorney for Equality Now, an international nonprofit that promotes the rights of women and girls.
The White House for the past few years has actively chipped away at many of those Band-Aid measures — cutting off equal pay efforts, and actively trying to weaken the parts of the civil rights law, Title VII and Title IX, that women have relied on to protect them against discrimination.
“We thought we had de facto equality,” Kelly said. “All of these different things we thought we had are now vanishing and I think a lot of people are now panicking, [asking,] ‘How can they take these away from me?’ And the reason is we were never put in the constitution.”
Though the ERA’s passage in Virginia now seems a near-certainty, its path to inclusion in the Constitution faces more hurdles: for starters, the congressional provision that required three-fourths of the state to ratify the ERA by 1982, plus a handful of states that have since tried to rescind their ratification.
Still, activists are confident that they can clear these obstacles. There’s currently a bill in the House that would get rid of the deadline and legal scholars argue that you can’t just rescind constitutional ratification.
Activists are setting their sights on 2020, counting on Congress to be on their side.
“We are on the cusp of history,” Spearman said, pointing out that the U.S. is the only industrialized country that does not have women’s rights enshrined in its constitution. “Equal rights might have been on cruise control before. But now it’s pedal to the metal.”