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Alice Paul's spirit lights the House

Jamie Stiehm on

WASHINGTON -- It was the first ray of light in the House in the long impeachment winter of discontent -- the first time I'd seen smiles brighten faces in the hall and on the floor. Female members of Congress wore purple scarves over white ensembles as they headed for celebrations with out-of-town guests.

What was up?

Alice Paul, the suffrage champion who started the stir, was there only in spirit. She did not live to see the day her Equal Rights Amendment came back into play after being left for dead a few decades ago.

But she'd be pleased as punch to know Virginia finally became the 38th state to ratify the amendment, known as the ERA, in 2020. Texas passed it in 1972, along with most states in the '70s, so yes, Virginia was late to the game. (Yet in time for Women's History Month.)

Newly blue Virginia opened the door to revival. Thirty-eight states must ratify a constitutional amendment. The ERA at last reached that threshold after almost a century. Indeed, the amendment was proposed by Paul in 1923, after women won the right to vote in 1920.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, declared, "It is a shameful reality that the equal rights amendment has not been enshrined in the Constitution."

 

Here's the thing standing in the way: To thwart the ERA's momentum back in the '70s, some Southern senators gave passage by 38 states a deadline. 1982 was the deadline lawmakers imposed by resolution.

The ERA almost made it. It missed the deadline largely because Illinois failed when it was most needed. But that's another story, and besides, Phyllis Schlafly, the doer, is dead.

So, the House roll-call vote to remove the deadline for ratifying the ERA was 21st-century music to awaken hope in hearts that remembered the blow. The Democratic majority passed the measure, 232 to 183, along party lines. Only a few Republicans broke ranks.

Afterward, I ran into Rep. Jackie Speier, also a California Democrat, the chief sponsor. Let me quote from her floor speech: "We are done being paid less for our work, done being violated ... done being discriminated against simply because we are women."

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