RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia moved to the brink of becoming the crucial 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment on Wednesday, a momentous victory for many women’s rights advocates even though it is far from certain the measure will ever be added to the U.S. Constitution.
The affirmative votes in both chambers of the Virginia legislature came decades after Congress sent the ERA to the states in 1972, passing it with bipartisan support.
ERA advocates say hitting the 38 mark means the amendment will have surpassed the three-quarters of states the amendment needs to be added to the Constitution.
Opponents disagree. Court battles are expected to unfold over a long-passed 1982 ratification deadline set by Congress as well as moves by five states that ratified it in the 1970s to rescind their support.
Still, the votes in the House and Senate carried enormous symbolic weight and showed how much once solidly conservative Virginia has changed.
“We’re euphoric,” Lisa Sales, a member of the grassroots VAratifyERA group that’s worked for passage, said ahead of the vote.
The state has undergone seismic political shifts due to increasing diversity and the growing activism and political power of women. Democrats who retook control of the legislature in November’s elections made passing the ERA a top priority after Republicans blocked it for years.
The measure has passed the Virginia Senate before with bipartisan support but has never made it to the House for a floor vote. ERA supporters, some of whom have been advocates for decades, lined up hours in advance of the vote Wednesday to get a seat in the gallery.
The House vote was presided over by Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, the first female House speaker in the chamber’s 400-year history.
ERA advocates say the measure would enshrine equality for women in the Constitution, offering stronger protections in sex discrimination cases. They also argue the ERA would give Congress firmer ground to pass anti-discrimination laws.
Opponents warn it would erode commonsense protections for women, such as workplace accommodations during pregnancies. They also worry it would be used by abortion-rights supporters to quash abortion restrictions on the grounds that they specifically discriminate against women.
Advocates, opponents and legal experts largely agree that with the 38th state’s ratification, lawsuits are likely to unfold. At least two have already been filed.
Last week, the Justice Department issued an opinion concluding that because the deadline has expired, the ERA is no longer legally pending before the states.
The National Archives and Records Administration, which has a ministerial role in certifying the ratification of constitutional amendments, said in a statement that it would abide by that legal opinion “unless otherwise directed by a final court order.”
Congressional Democrats are also working to pass a bill removing the deadline.