Debate over whether Virginia should ratify the Equal Rights Amendment grew more emotional on Tuesday when a Republican lawmaker sparred with a longtime ERA activist during a House subcommittee hearing. Republicans then voted to kill the measure, but supporters said they want it brought back for a full committee vote.
The exchange before the 4-2 vote was between Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland, who chairs a House Privileges and Elections subcommittee that heard ERA measures Tuesday morning, and Eileen Davis, a longtime activist supporting the ERA who is also the mother of U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th.
Supporters of Virginia ratifying the ERA, along with a smaller number of opponents, packed a room in the Pocahontas Building where the measure was getting its first hearing on the House side. A resolution sponsored by Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond, passed the Senate last week on a bipartisan 26-14 vote.
The proposed federal amendment says: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” It provides that Congress shall have the power to enforce its provisions “by appropriate legislation.”
ERA supporters expected Ransone’s subcommittee to table the measure, voting against ratification.
Sturtevant and Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, presented their resolutions, and then three supporters and opponents each spoke.
Before the six-member committee voted, Ransone gave a speech about her reasons for opposing the ERA, saying it had come before her subcommittee many times over the years.
Some ERA supporters in the audience snickered or began talking while she spoke, while other ERA supporters in the audience told them to be quiet.
“For a moment I want to talk to the young girls in the audience,” Ransone said, prompting some in the audience to groan.
“Well that’s embarrassing that you would say that to me,” Ransone said. “Because what I would say to them is that you can do anything that you want.”
One young woman stood and turned her back to Ransone before a police officer told her to be seated.
After that, Ransone singled out Davis.
“And Eileen, you sit back there and you shake your head,” Ransone said, saying that “it’s my turn to speak” when the crowd audibly reacted.
“You all have disrespected me year after year and Eileen, you have brought young people and young women to my office and told them that they’re not worthy. They are worthy,” Ransone said.
“Exactly, and they should be worthy under the law,” Davis said from toward the front of the audience. “I’m sorry, but she brought me into it.”
Some people in the audience applauded and some grew noisier as Ransone continued speaking.
“I completely respect all the women here today,” Ransone said. “I don’t need words on a piece of paper. God made us all equal.”
A woman in the audience said: “History will not be on your side.”
The four Republicans on the subcommittee voted to kill ERA ratification and the two Democrats voted for the ERA.
Davis said afterward that Ransone addressing her from the dais was “completely inappropriate. They ask for us to maintain decorum and then she goes and does something like that.”
“I go to her office year after year after year and I have never had a face-to-face conversation.”
Davis said she once brought two pre-med students whose parents were immigrants, and said Ransone met with the students, but not Davis, in her office.
“She berated them that they were asking for special handouts,” Davis said.
Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, one of the two Democrats on the subcommittee, said he could not recall a committee chair singling out a member of the audience.
“That was unusual,” he said. “She saw Eileen moving her head and that’s what instigated her to call her out.”
He said Ransone’s remarks were “mostly done with respect but I think this could have gotten more out of control.”
“There’s a lot of energy in this room.”
And he said he thinks Republicans will allow the full House Privileges and Elections Committee to vote on the ERA resolutions this week.
“With this type of attention that it’s getting, I think there’s an expectation that it be brought before the full committee Friday morning,” Sickles said.
Later in the day, Ransone choked up on the House floor as she gave a speech recounting what she called “the most disappointing and discouraging event” she’s ever experienced at the General Assembly. She said that as she tried to speak a message of female empowerment to girls in the committee room, she saw pro-ERA mothers cover the girls’ ears, as if “that message delivered from a Republican woman simply wasn’t worth hearing.”
Ransone, who took office in 2012 and is one of five women in the 51-member GOP caucus, received a standing ovation from her Republican colleagues. Several Democrats walked over to speak to Ransone after the speech and seemed to be consoling her. Ransone left the House chamber escorted by security personnel, but she said she was unable to talk about it.
House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, has not taken a position on whether Virginia should ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, but the Virginia House GOP Twitter account last week tweeted a link to a speech from Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, opposing the ERA.
ERA supporters say it would pass the House of Delegates if it reached a floor vote. They want Virginia to become the 38th state to ratify the measure and say that would add it to the U.S. Constitution; opponents, however, say an extended 1982 deadline has long passed and the ERA is moot.
Davis said the ERA will be an issue this fall, when all 140 seats in the legislature are up for election.
“As John Fredericks said on his radio show the other day, the Republican Party is crazy to be doing what they’re doing right here,” she said. “It’s going to be a bloodbath.”
Staff writer Graham Moomaw contributed to this report.