The fight over the Equal Rights Amendment is shifting to states like Arizona and Georgia after the latest ratification effort failed last week, leaving supporters one state short of the threshold needed to enshrine gender equality in the Constitution.
Entering this year, supporters had targeted Virginia — a once reliably red state that has shifted blue in recent years — as the next state most likely to back the amendment, known as the “ERA.” A bill to ratify the measure gained traction in Virginia’s House of Delegates last month. But it languished in committee and wasn’t brought to a full vote — as supporters had hoped — before the state’s 2019 legislative session ended last Friday.
At least two-thirds of the state legislatures in the U.S. — or 38 — must ratify the measure for it to become an official constitutional amendment. Last year Illinois became the 37th state to ratify the amendment since Congress passed it in 1972. Over the years, as states missed multiple deadlines to reach the two-thirds threshold, the debate over the ERA has turned into a broader culture war clash over gender equality and issues like abortion.
“It will happen, the question is which state will be the state to push it over the historic finish line,” said Kate Kelly, an attorney at the advocacy group Equality Now.
Supporters are now focused on other traditionally right-leaning or conservative states that are considering taking up the issue, including Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and Utah.
But the amendment remains unpopular with conservative critics who have long argued that it would impinge on existing federal and state laws.
“The ERA does not put women in the Constitution. It puts sex in the Constitution, and it doesn’t define what sex is,” said Anne Schlafly Cori, the chairman of the Eagle Forum, a group opposed to the amendment. “It would upend countless state and federal laws that currently benefit women,” said Cori, the daughter of Phyllis Schlafly, a leading ERA opponent during the 1970s. If the ERA was ratified, she worries “there would be tax dollars paying for abortions,” an idea she opposes.
Supporters of the ERA have dismissed the abortion argument.
“This abortion scare tactic is often used by anti-ERA activists whose real goal is actually to strip away existing constitutional rights women already have to access necessary reproductive health care,” Kelly said.
Aside from Virginia, 12 other states have not ratified the amendment: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah. Here’s a look at the states on that list where there could be legislative movement on the issue in the near future.
In 2018, Democratic state Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley sponsored a resolution to ratify the ERA in Arizona, but it failed after Republicans refused to allow debate on the measure. Since then, Democrats have picked up four seats in the Republican-controlled state House, whittling down the GOP advantage to a 31-29 split for Republicans. The state senate now has a 15-15 split, creating an opening for Democrats to try and push for ERA ratification again.
An ERA resolution has been introduced this year. All 29 Democrats and one Republican in the state House have signed on, and, Powers Hannley told the NewsHour there are hints of more Republican support if the bill goes to a floor vote.
But the bill will face opposition from some powerful GOP lawmakers. Republican state Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, the chairman of the senate Judiciary Committee, is expected to block the bill.
Last month, Republican state Sen. Renee Unterman and Democratic state Sen. Nan Orrock introduced a bipartisan resolution to ratify the ERA in Georgia. Seven Republicans have co-sponsored the legislation, including six men. The Georgia General Assembly now has 15 women in the 56-seat Senate and 57 female lawmakers in the 180-seat House, a record for the state. Supporters say the growing number of female lawmakers in Georgia has increased the odds of ratification.
Democratic state Sen. Floyd McKissick sponsored an ERA measure last year and in previous legislative sessions going back to 2015, but all of them failed to pass. McKissick is trying again this year with another ERA bill expected to be introduced next month. But gaining co-sponsors in a state that had a Republican supermajority until recently will be challenging.
“There is an improved atmosphere, and there is more bipartisanship on some issues. The question is, can that extend over to the ERA, and I think that’s going to be an uphill battle,” McKissick said in an interview. He added: “In my mind it’s unconscionable that it’s even being debated in 2019. It seems absolutely obvious.”
Movement in Congress?
While the fight plays out in the states, some Republicans and Democrats in Congress are backing legislation that would pave the way for ERA ratification whenever the 38th state signs on. Congress would likely have to act because it originally gave states seven years to reach the 38-state threshold after passing the ERA in 1972, and later extended the deadline to 1982, but has not taken action on the issue since then. Critics contend that ratification by a 38th state would be moot since Congress never extended the 1982 deadline.
Rep.Jackie Speier, D-Calif., introduced a resolution last month that would eliminate the deadline and count the states that have ratified the ERA since the early 1980s toward the magic number of 38.
The bipartisan bill has 149 co-sponsors, according to Speier’s office.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, introduced a similar resolution in the Senate last month. In a joint op-ed in The Washington Post, Cardin and Murkowski wrote that “we come from different ends of the political spectrum, but we agree that this needs to change.”
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., introduced a different bill in the House that would restart the ratification process for the ERA from scratch, and add the word “women” to the amendment.
“Rep. Speier and I are working together to cover all our bases. I am dedicated to getting the ERA in the Constitution – I am open to all paths to doing so,” Maloney said in a statement to the NewsHour.