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Virginia Lawmakers Renew National Debate Over ERA


In Virginia this week, state lawmakers are set to take a series of important votes on the Equal Rights Amendment. Thirty-eight states are needed to ratify it, and Virginia, with these votes, would be the 38th. That's likely to spark legal battles over whether the ERA is still viable and a renewed national debate over the proposed constitutional amendment, which would forbid discrimination based on sex. It's a fight that stretches back decades, and a generation of women who long ago battled on either side of the issue are watching and fighting again.

NPR's Sarah McCammon spoke with several of them.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Andrea Miller first heard about the Equal Rights Amendment from her mother.

ANDREA MILLER: It basically went, I'm very interested in the Equal Rights Amendment. I disagree with it a little. I think women are superior to men, but we'll settle for being equal. That was basically what my mother told me (laughter).

MCCAMMON: Miller was an eighth-grader in the Chicago suburbs in the late 1960s. Her mom owned a business delivering mail door to door, and they used it to drum up support for the ERA.

MILLER: So what we did was we took our little ERA flyers and stuck them in the bag of junk mail.

MCCAMMON: A few years later, Anne Schlafly Cori was also learning about the issue from her mom, the late Phyllis Schlafly, the ERA's most prominent opponent.

ANNE SCHLAFLY CORI: The telephone rang day and evening with calls and questions from supporters and from reporters on ERA. It was a constant in my childhood.

MCCAMMON: Now 55 and living in St. Louis, Schlafly Cori has continued her mother's work promoting conservative causes. She fears the ERA would make it harder to restrict abortion, even if the U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturns the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

SCHLAFLY CORI: I think that a lot of concerns about ERA have not changed from the 1970s to today because the end result of ERA is to make men and women interchangeable in every situation.

MCCAMMON: That's a problem, Schlafly Cori says, because there are biological differences between men and women that sometimes require differences in the law. Elise Bouc of Stop ERA Illinois warns of an end to separate prison facilities for female inmates or that women could be forced into a military draft. Bouc says she's opposed the Equal Rights Amendment since she was a teenager in the 1970s. She believes many women who support it don't understand it.

ELISE BOUC: It's very emotional for them. They're very attached to it from the '70s. They believe it's going to be the cure-all for all their problems. And what they don't understand is it's really not going to add any benefit to them; it's only going to add harm.

MCCAMMON: For Donna Granski, a 73-year-old activist and retired teacher from Midlothian, Va., the upcoming vote in the state Legislature is a historic moment. She remembers coming to the Virginia Capitol in the 1970s, lining a walkway, holding candles to show support for the ERA. And yes, she says, it is an emotional moment.

DONNA GRANSKI: I may get teary-eyed now. It means that my country looks at females the same way it looks at males. It means that my granddaughters can pick up a copy of the United States Constitution and see that they are enshrined in it.

MCCAMMON: Even assuming that Virginia ratifies the Equal Rights Amendment this week, it faces an uncertain future. The Justice Department has issued an opinion saying that the deadline for the ERA to be added to the Constitution has expired. If that stands, it could mean another round of debate over the amendment in statehouses nationwide.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Virginia Beach.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOLLOWED BY GHOSTS' "CLEAR BLUE SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
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