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Virginia Poised To Pass Equal Rights Amendment Nearly 5 Decades After It Was Proposed


Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment nearly four decades ago. Next month, Virginia is likely to become the 38th state to ratify it. That is the magic number for adding an amendment to the Constitution, and Virginia's incoming Democratic leaders say it is a priority.


The Equal Rights Amendment prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, and someone who has been fighting for years for it is Carol Jenkins of the ERA Coalition.


CAROL JENKINS: Thank you so much.

CHANG: So let's just remind everyone - I mean, Congress passed the ERA in 1972. Can you just help us understand why enough states have not been able to ratify it in the decades since?

JENKINS: In the 1970s and the 1980s, people bought the idea that women would, at some point, emerge from the pipeline, that they would be suddenly equal. They were moving up in corporate life. They were moving up in education. They were making advances.

CHANG: So you're saying the resistance that some states felt to ratify this amendment was maybe because they thought it would be superfluous, that women were going to be equal eventually anyway.

JENKINS: Precisely.

CHANG: So why would we need an amendment?

JENKINS: And even women thought that. You know, it's just a matter of time. And our daughters certainly would not be faced with this same discrepancy. And, of course, they are.

CHANG: But there is a deadline problem here. Congress set deadlines for ratification, and the last one for the ERA was back in 1982. I mean, doesn't Congress have to restart the whole process for any ratification by states to be valid?

JENKINS: That time limit, as we like to think of it - not a deadline - was set in the preamble and not actually in the amendment itself. Congress extended it for three years after its original setting of that. So we are fully in belief that Congress can remove it, should they decide to do that. And Senators Ben Cardin and Lisa Murkowski have a bipartisan bill in the Senate that they are working on so that there is no ambiguity. The coalition is working to remove the deadline.

CHANG: So tell me what protections the ERA would provide that current laws on the books don't right now. I mean, we do have Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits gender discrimination in the workplace. We have a whole body of case law that recognizes equality of the sexes. So what does the ERA provide in addition to all of that?

JENKINS: Well, it will make everything work better - pay equity, of course, where women are still drastically behind men.

CHANG: Yeah.

JENKINS: It takes a Latina woman almost a year to make what a white man made the year before. It's...

CHANG: You'd think the ERA would deliver...

JENKINS: It would.

CHANG: ...Wage equality.

JENKINS: It would, ultimately.

CHANG: You know, another question that comes to mind is - back when the ERA was passed by Congress, people were just more likely to think of individuals as either male or female. Norms are changing now. How would the ERA address these evolving views of sex and gender?

JENKINS: What the ERA amendment says is that you cannot discriminate based on account of sex or gender. And of course, we have a court case coming up in the Supreme Court that will define that, but for now, the amendment only sets a level playing ground for all citizens of the United States of America. It doesn't matter what your understanding of your sex is. You cannot be discriminated based on that.

CHANG: Carol Jenkins is the CEO and co-president of the ERA Coalition.

Thank you very much for coming in today.

JENKINS: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMMETT KAI'S "SUNDAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.