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Women pack committee rooms demanding Virginia debate Equal Rights Amendment
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Women pack committee rooms demanding Virginia debate Equal Rights Amendment

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Virginia is one of the states that never ratified the Equal Rights Amendment and thus part of the reason it never made it into the U.S. Constitution.

But the issue will not go away and, on Friday, women voters sang and chanted as Republican lawmakers in Richmond refused to move a resolution to ratify the amendment out of committee to a floor debate.

They came from the League of Women Voters, the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County and several other women’s rights groups to lobby the Senate Rules Committee and the House Committee on Privileges and Elections to advance resolutions on the ERA to the floor of each chamber.

“This is just plain, old equality,” said Kasey Terrill of Chesterfield County, who brought her 11-year-old son, Jackson, and dressed the way a women’s equality activist would have in the early 20th century. “They’re calling it the ‘blue wave,’ but I’m saying people are upset.

“We’ve just barely broke the 25 percent mark for women represented in the state of Virginia, and obviously it’s going to take another election cycle to get some of these men out who are unwilling to hear any issues, to even just pass them to the floor.”

In the Senate committee, Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City, moved to kill a bloc of bills that included the ERA resolution.

Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, countered with a move to take Senate Joint Resolution 4 out of the bloc, resulting in applause in the room — something that’s rare in legislative committees.

Committee chairman Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, then explained that there are no recorded votes on resolutions. Women in the audience exclaimed, “Then do a show of hands” and “This is not right.”

“You work for us,” one of them said. “This is ridiculous.”

As Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, began explaining another bill, the group began singing “We Shall Overcome” as Hanger awkwardly continued talking.

Senate Democratic leader Dick Saslaw of Fairfax chimed in: “Mr. Chairman, I think it’d be easier if we had a recorded vote.” More applause. The hearing continued, as did the singing.

McDougle then whispered with other senators about whether to allow a show of hands on the resolution.

“Members of the audience, if you all would allow us to be able to continue forward with the committee meeting, then we would be able to take up the issues that are important to you,” he said.

If they could not proceed, he said, “then we will have to have the room cleared.”

The singing grew louder.

The Equal Rights Amendment, which passed Congress in 1972, needed backing by legislatures in 38 of the 50 states in order to be added to the Constitution. It was three states short as of a 1982 deadline set by Congress. Virginia was one of 15 states that did not ratify it by the deadline.

Nevada ratified the Equal Rights Amendment last year, 35 years after the deadline imposed by Congress. Those pushing Virginia to vote on it said women do not currently receive equal treatment and the Virginia legislature could and should still vote to ratify the amendment.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, filed the resolution in the Senate.

McDougle agreed to a show of hands vote on Howell’s motion. The audience erupted in jeers of “shame on you” when a majority raised their hands to kill the resolution.

“The motion fails,” McDougle said.

As the jeering continued, Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, added: “We operate these meetings on decorum and I chair a committee and this is not the way we operate. I hope that everyone in here would have the respect of what the meetings are for. We’ve let you say your piece, and I think it’s time that we move on.”

Someone replied: “We’re just getting started.”

Across the hall a few minutes later, Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, said constitutional attorneys think the issue is properly before the legislature and hoped the House would take it up.

Pat Fishback of the League of Women Voters talked about women being jailed and beaten in the decades-long fight for the ERA.

House Privileges and Elections Chairman Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, began: “While I think everyone up here supports equal rights for all ...” He was cut off by jeers.

“Look, I allowed you all to speak, please allow me to speak, all right? The ratification period for the Equal Rights Amendment expired in 1982 and the proposal ... can no longer be heard before us. I’m going to rule that motion out of order. Thank you.”

The committee adjourned as the women in the room began singing again.

Senators who voted to advance the ERA resolution to the floor were Howell; Saslaw; Mamie Locke, D-Hampton; Richard Stuart, R-Stafford; and Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier.

Senators who voted to kill the resolution were Hanger; Carrico; Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham; Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg; Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg; Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach; Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County; and Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania.

pwilson@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6061

Twitter: @patrickmwilson

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