In the coming days, Virginia, newly under Democratic control, is expected to formally pass the Equal Rights Amendment, a constitutional amendment proposed almost a century ago that has never made its way into being. Thirty-eight states must ratify the ERA for the amendment to move forward; Virginia will be the 38th. What happens next is anyone's guess (opens in new tab). Jennifer Carroll Foy, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. is leading the Virginia effort.
I grew up in Petersburg, VA, a town where many people were not set up to thrive. In a community with one of the highest child poverty rates (opens in new tab), and one of the highest teen pregnancy rates, (opens in new tab) my friends and I faced a number of challenges. Many of my friends and neighbors struggled to get by and women had even fewer opportunities than men. Luckily, my grandmother, who raised me, taught me to be determined, persistent, and service-oriented—values that continue to define my life. It was those values that piqued my interest in public service, starting with my time in JROTC in high school. As one of the few women in the program, I constantly had to prove myself, understanding that there were still too few opportunities for women in this field.
But then, something big happened for me and Virginia women: the United States Supreme Court issued a decision (opens in new tab)compelling the Virginia Military Institute, a legendary institution in a Commonwealth that only admitted men, to admit women as well. For so long, women had been shut out of this institution. But even when the decision came down, the men in my JROTC classroom sided with the efforts to exclude women. I watched the Supreme Court take this tremendous step for women while surrounded by people who doubted me as a woman, and truly thought of me as a second-class citizen.
My classmates doubted a woman’s ability to succeed at VMI, but I didn't let that stand in my way. I knew VMI would be the perfect training ground for people like me, who were committed to a lifetime of services, so I immediately applied. Years later, I graduated from VMI, and in fact, was the only one to walk across the stage at graduation—the men in my JROTC program did not. I did it thanks to the determination instilled in me by my grandmother, and a consequential United States Supreme Court decision to open up opportunities for women. From there, I went on to become a magistrate judge, public defender, and in 2017, was elected (opens in new tab)to represent my community in the Virginia House of Delegates.
As a new delegate, my goal was, and still is, to serve as many people the best I can. And it became clear to me that I could do that very thing by introducing a resolution to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia (opens in new tab)—opening new doors for women in my state and across the country. Growing up in Virginia as a young woman of color, it was very clear to me that our Commonwealth was on the wrong side of history for so many reasons, so many times. Unfortunately, the Commonwealth does not have a great history when it comes to matters of equality. But by passing the Equal Rights Amendment, we’d finally be able to get it right, not only in our state, but for the rest of the country, too. If Virginia becomes the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, this amendment will be eligible to be added to the United States Constitution, providing protections from gender discrimination that women currently don’t have.
Today, preventing gender discrimination is the responsibility of elected officials. I knew that laws and Supreme Court decisions, like the one that allowed me to go to VMI, can always be reversed, and laws can always be changed as often as legislators change their minds which of course means those officials must believe in gender equality in the first place. Clearly, that doesn’t cut it. We currently have a president who does not see women as equals, (opens in new tab) and has enacted an agenda to match. And in many states, it's just the same, which has led to policies that quite literally threaten women’s lives and livelihoods. If we pass the Equal Rights Amendment, and add it to the Constitution, we’ll be shoring up protections for women’s rights, and in many cases, establishing those protections for the first time.
When I think about passing the Equal Rights Amendment, I think of a world where women are truly equal to men. A world where we're paid equally, where getting pregnant won’t lead to discrimination in the workplace, (opens in new tab) and where a woman can make the best choices for her and her future. For too long, women have not had the protections from discrimination we deserve in the U.S. Constitution, and with passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, we’ll be that much closer to living in a world where women and girls have the same opportunities as men.
I was proud to do my part in Virginia and introduce Equal Rights Amendment, and it's been an honor to work alongside trailblazers like Ellie Smeal (opens in new tab) to ratify it. It’s no surprise that the Trump administration is attempting to throw roadblocks on the path toward adding the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, despite how wildly popular it is with the vast majority of Americans. But I’m a woman, like so many others, who refuses to back down from a challenge, and from fighting for what’s right. I graduated from VMI when no one thought I could, and I was elected to the House when people doubted me. To anyone challenging the Equal Rights Amendment, I say: bring it on.
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