Thirty-five years past a deadline set by Congress, Nevada ratifies the Equal Rights Amendment
The moment felt historic enough that some lawmakers in Nevada's Capitol autographed paper copies of the resolution.
Nevada’s state Assembly voted Monday 28-14 to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment — 35 years past the deadline set by Congress and four decades since the last state voted to adopt its language.
The vote marked a stirring victory for the resolution’s chief sponsor, Sen. Pat Spearman, the Las Vegas-based Democrat who had seen it fail previously when she tried to move the measure through the state legislature in 2015.
This month, the resolution narrowly passed the state Senate.
“We did it,” Spearman said shortly after the state Assembly vote. “It was overwhelming, but we did it. It shows that it’s never too late to support equality.”
The ERA was first proposed in 1920s, but Congress didn’t pass it until 1972. The key part of its text reads: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
Thirty-eight state legislatures needed to ratify the proposed amendment, but it fell short by three when the deadline expired in 1982. Many credit the defeat to the Eagle Forum, a conservative lobbying group, and its founder Phyllis Schlafly, who argued among other things that it would open women to being drafted into the military and combat.
Once the expiration date passed, groups such as the National Organization for Women adopted a “three-state strategy” in hopes of getting to the three-quarters goal needed for ratification. Some have suggested the 1982 deadline was arbitrary and believe Congress didn’t have the power to set a deadline for passage.
Terry O’Neill, president of NOW, said she hoped Nevada’s ratification would embolden some other states like Virginia and Illinois to follow the Silver State's lead.
“Now it’s a two-state strategy,” she said. “It’s very exciting. Over the past five years, Illinois and Virginia have come close. I think there is clear interest in this.”
Since the early 1990s, supporters of the amendment have been trying to get a trio of the 15 state legislatures that rejected it to reverse course.
In Virginia, one chamber had approved ratification while the other refused on multiple occasions in the last few years. Illinois had a similar scenario play out in 2014, but currently has a ratification resolution alive in its legislative session.
This year, Nevada was one of eight states with resolutions calling for ratification. But in six of those states — Utah, Arizona, Missouri, Virginia, Florida and North Carolina — at least one house of the legislature is controlled by Republicans, who have opposed ERA ratification.
Nevada flipped its legislature in November, with Democrats taking control of both chambers. With its state legislature at just about 40% women — the highest percentage in the nation — Spearman thought she had a good chance this year.
Hearings brought out large groups of supporters testifying — often emotionally — about the need for the ERA. Spearman said after the Assembly’s vote, she thought of Nevada Democratic State Party Office Manager Naomi Millisor, who died last week. Spearman said Millisor continually had inspired her to keep pushing for passage of the measure.
“She was rooting for this and sadly didn't live long enough to see it,” Spearman said. “She was a cheerleader for it and I remember her telling me to stay with it. I had told her, ‘Yes ma’am, it will pass.’”
Spearman said the resolution must go back to the Senate for some technical amendments before it is certified by the Nevada secretary of state and copies are transmitted to the National Archives and Records Administration, the offices of the vice president of the U.S. and speaker of the House. She said the state Senate votes on the amendments would probably happen Wednesday.
Republican Assemblywoman Robin Titus opposed the resolution, saying she was “deeply disturbed by the theatrics” in the legislature over ERA ratification.
“I don’t believe my constituents sent me to cast symbolic votes with no chance of success,” Titus said.
While both legislative chambers were mostly split down party lines, some Republicans chose to back the resolution.
Jill Tolles, a Reno Republican, said she didn’t buy the arguments that the ERA would entrench abortions into the Constitution, and that even symbolic votes have a place in the legislature. She said legislators say the Pledge of Allegiance every day before the floor session starts and that the flag is a symbol for America. She said her wedding ring is symbolic of her commitment to her husband.
“I would argue this chamber is full of symbolism,” Tolles said.
Maggie Carlton, a Las Vegas Democrat, offered an impassioned argument for the resolution, telling a story of her mother having to take off her wedding ring to go to work every day for fear of being fired. She said the company fired women who were married because they might have children and it would hurt productivity.
Her story built on others who spoke about pay inequality and perceptions that President Trump’s administration is rolling back rights for women through proposals to defund Planned Parenthood and appointing judges who appear to oppose abortion rights.
“I vote for this for today in honor of my mother, my grandmother and my two daughters,” Carlton said. “Symbolism or not, it’s time to send the message.”