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Virginia’s Long Fight to Ratify the ERA: Interview with Senator Janet Howell (D-32)

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Every since February 9th, 2018, when the Senate Rules Committee tried to ignore the hundred plus women demanding a vote on the resolution to ratify the ERA, while Senator Janet Howell watched with pride in her eyes, I’ve wanted to talk to her about that moment. In light of the national disgrace that has taken place the last several weeks, I needed a little pick-me-up, so I finally chatted with her about it.

You seemed to be really enjoying the Rules Committee meeting last session where the ERA was discussed. What was going through your mind when the women were singing “We Shall Overcome?”
I loved the Rules Committee Meeting. The women (and men) in the audience were just fed up and they weren’t going to quietly take it any more. The committee majority was trying to silence them and not even listen to their testimony. The women had worked for months on ERA — buying billboards, sending postcards, writing op-eds — and they were demanding a recorded vote. For me, this meeting vividly showed the potential power of women. It also showed the deviousness of the majority party —- this resolution usually goes to the Privileges and Elections Committee where it passes. It was instead sent to the Rules Committee which only has three Democrats, and was certain to fail. What are the Republicans afraid of?

Around how many times has the Senate considered ERA ratification resolutions? 
Resolutions to ratify the ERA have been introduced in each of the 2011 to 2018 sessions. Prior to 2011, the last time the resolution was introduced was 2004. ERA resolutions have passed the Senate four times:  2012, 2014, 2015, and 2016. The biggest majority was in 2012 when it was 24-15. The problem has been the House. It has never passed the House. Since I joined the Senate in 1992, it has been introduced about 12 times in the Senate.

Has the ERA vote always been a straight party-line vote?
Democrats universally vote for the amendment. We are sometimes joined by a few Republicans. I think they try to kill the amendment in committee so members are not forced to take a hard vote on the floor.

Who have been some of the strongest supporters in the Senate for ERA? 
The Democratic caucus is unified in supporting the ERA. All the Democratic women are fervent supporters. We have strong male allies like Saslaw, Barker, Surovell and Ebbin who make this a top priority.

Many years ago, Dick Saslaw, who has always been a strong feminist, moved to discharge the committee when the ERA was bottled up there. His motion failed, but it sure took courage for a new Senator to confront leadership like that.

What are the arguments most often given against Virginia ratifying the ERA?
The arguments against it are mostly ridiculous. Women will be drafted into the military — what draft? women are in the military already! We will have unisex bathrooms. Yes, we already have unisex bathrooms. Lately, the argument is largely procedural: it is after the deadline for ratification. I think that is for the courts to decide and not up to us. 

What have been the most compelling arguments for ratifying the ERA that you’ve heard in the Senate?
For me, it is an extension of our constitutional rights. Women are left out of the constitution. We merit the same rights as men — and they should be explicitly stated.