By Sam Rasoul
Rasoul represents most of Roanoke and part of Roanoke County in the House of Delegates. He is a Democrat.
On August 26, we recognize Women’s Equality Day, celebrating the addition ninety-nine years ago of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution granting women the right to vote. This year we also should recognize that Virginia stands at a historic crossroads. We have the opportunity to play a pivotal role in our nation’s history by becoming the thirty-eighth state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which will finally provide women with equality under the law.
In pursuit of equality at the voting booth, suffragists carried out advocacy and civil disobedience for nearly seventy-five years. Although Mahatma Gandhi is often perceived as the originator of mass-scale peaceful resistance, suffragists used it successfully decades earlier.
They were never violent, but they faced violence. Beaten while participating in a 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., force-fed in jail, and tortured during the 1917 “Night of Terror,” the suffragists’ resolve never wavered. The violence they endured led to public sympathy and, eventually, support for an amendment guaranteeing women the vote.
However, the right to vote was never the suffragists’ ultimate objective. Once granted, women set their sights on an equality amendment. From 1921 until today, equality under the law has remained an unfulfilled goal.
While the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment, passed in 1868, promises equality of rights under the law based on race, religion, and country of origin, it does not specify equality for women. Women were purposefully excluded from the amendment to ensure its passage by Congress and the states.
Another fifty years of advocacy resulted in Congress passing the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) on March 22, 1972. This amendment contains twenty-four simple words: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” After approval by the Senat=e, the ERA began its nationwide journey for ratification by the thirty-eight states required for inclusion in the U.S. Constitution.
But here we are, forty-seven years later, and the United States is one state short of achieving that goal. As a country, we still have not made good on our promise of constitutional equality for women. With the ratification of the ERA, our court system will hold gender discrimination to the same “strict scrutiny” required for racial and religious discrimination. Until then, cases of gender discrimination are subject only to the more lenient “intermediate scrutiny,” and women’s rights are legislated state by state.
During the 2020 General Assembly, Virginia will have the enviable and historic opportunity to be the thirty-eighth and final state needed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. A poll conducted by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, which provides unbiased and non-partisan scientific research about public policy issues facing Virginia, found that 81 percent of Virginians wanted the General Assembly to vote for the ERA’s ratification in the session that ended in early 2019. The ratification was approved through the Virginia Senate but, despite overwhelming support for the ERA, it never got to the floor in the House of Delegates.
In 1920, Virginia was one of the states which failed to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. Today all Virginians are finally able to vote, but women’s full participation in our society has yet to be realized. On Women’s Equality Day, let us not only remember the progress American women have made on the road to full political social, and economic equality, but also look to the future and to the possibilities of true equality that the Equal Rights Amendment will bring. This November, women will once again go to the polls to cast their votes. Here’s hoping that 2020, the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, will see the ratification of the ERA in Virginia.