Donna Grunski remembers standing in the snow, holding a candle.
“There’s a walkway between the General Assembly building and the capitol,” she recalls. “And we stood and silently vigiled.”
It was 1979 or 80. She can’t remember exactly. She and other members of the League of Women Voters were asking lawmakers in Virginia to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
They never did.
But now, almost four decades later, momentum around the cause has reemerged - giving activists like Grunski hope that this could be the year.
If lawmakers decided to support the effort Virginia could be the 38th, and final, state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The amendment to the U.S. constitution guarantees rights based on gender.
Back in 1972 when the amendment first passed Congress, a majority of states jumped on board - ratifying almost immediately. But many in the south held out.
Grunski says there was a real fear of cultural change.
“If you’re somebody of power and privilege you see equality -- whatever kind of equality -- as being oppressive to you. You’re threatened,” she says.
Grunski is originally from New York. When she first started pushing for the amendment in Virginia she didn’t understand the resistance. She asked a friend, who was a state lawmaker, ‘What’s going on here?’
“He calmly looked at me and he was a freshman delegate and he said ‘Oh Donna. It’ll be 40 to 60 years before it’s ratified in the state of Virginia,’.” she remembers
It will have been 41 years this upcoming General Assembly. Grunski, and others, are ready.
This year several groups have mobilized, organizing a lobbying effort and educational bus tour. They’re energized because two states - Nevada and Illinois - recently ratified. That means only a single state more is needed to get the necessary two-thirds approval.
Democratic Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy says Virginia should be the one to take the ERA over the finish line.
“Virginia has been on the wrong side of history a couple of times. We fought against women’s right to vote, interracial marriage, desegregation,” Carroll Foy said during a recent stop of the bus tour. “So I think it’s only right and appropriate for us to be the state to put women’s equality into the United States Constitution.”
There are a couple barriers to doing that though.
First, lawmakers imposed a deadline that’s since passed. Supporters, though, say Congress could lift it. And that they would have the motivation if the ERA gets the state support it needs.
Climb aboard the ratify bus and organizer Kati Hornung says the second challenge is getting Virginia’s Republican leadership on board.
“This was originally a Republican ideal back in the 70’s -- that’s the administration it came out from,” Hornung says. “I’m a fourth generation Republican and everyone in my family thinks this is a great idea.”
Hornung recently met with Virginia’s Republican Speaker of the House who told her there wasn’t much support for the ERA in his caucus. A spokesperson for the Speaker says there are serious legal questions and that the bill will have to go through the legislative process like any other.
Hornung knows it might be an uphill climb, but she believes it’s a bipartisan issue.
For those who have been working on this issue for decades the challenges now are far less daunting than they used to be. Donna Grunski sees the fresh energy and is optimistic.
“I want my daughter, my daughter in law, and my two granddaughters to know that they are part of the United States Constitution before I die. I want to see this happen,” she says.