Equal Rights Amendment one step closer in Delaware

Six former Delaware female legislators were honored during an event supporting the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. (Zoe Read/WHYY)

Six former Delaware female legislators were honored during an event supporting the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. (Zoe Read/WHYY)

More than three decades after an Equal Rights Amendment was first proposed in Delaware, the General Assembly is one step closer to approving a proposed amendment.

The move to amend the Delaware Constitution to ensure equal rights and guard against gender-based discrimination passed in the General Assembly last year. However, the law requires legislators vote two years in a row to amend the Constitution.

During the first week of Delaware’s current legislative session, the House passed the ERA 35-6. It now moves to the Senate. If it should pass in the that chamber, the amendment would add this sentence to the state Constitution: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged on account of the sex of the person.”

Bill sponsor House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, said she’s thrilled the ERA’s passage is around the corner.

“What it says as a state is we believe men and women should be treated equal, and if we set that tone at the state level in our government, it will trickle down to our schools, the workforce and the community, that’s what Delaware believes in,” she said.

The lawmakers opposed to the legislation said on the House floor they had concerns the ERA could be misinterpreted in future court cases, and that it might be used to persuade the state to fund abortion.

Last year, lawmakers made amendments to the legislation that make clear the bill’s intent to address Republican concerns about private-sector demands, single-sex facilities and abortion.

Earlier in the day, Delaware’s lawmakers, including Gov. John Carney, as well as advocates, historians and legal experts, discussed the ERA’s importance at a public event honoring six women legislators who made history.

Sen. Louise Conner, Rep. Marion Seibel, Sen. Margaret Manning, Rep. Clarice Heckert, Rep. Henrietta Johnson and Rep. Joan Wright helped make Delaware one of the first states to ratify the federal ERA after Congress passed it in 1972.

However, not enough states ratified the amendment, so it never became part of the U.S. Constitution. Since then, several lawmakers have fought for an ERA in Delaware.

Families of those trailblazers were in attendance, and they spoke of the strides their relatives made in Legislative Hall. They told stories of the sexism they experienced from their male colleagues — who held policy discussions in the men’s bathroom to isolate the female legislators, and even played poker and drank bourbon on the bottom floor of the building.

John-Bria, the 11-year-old granddaughter of the late Henrietta Johnson — the first African American woman elected into Delaware’s House of Representatives — said she was honored to be a part of the event.

“It was special because we can learn the legacy and history she had, and tell the people about what our grandmother did that was special,” said John-Bria, who intends to be an attorney. “It meant something very special to show girls can do anything.”

Johnson’s son, Johnny B Johnson, said his mother would be elated that the ERA is close to passing.

“This is what she always stood for. She was against so many in Legislative Hall, where there was not that many women, and how they said it would never happen, and it was always said that the men had the brains to do it — like women didn’t have an idea of what was going on in the world,” he said.

“And now they’re finding out with the women in there, it’s a whole lot better because the men are still locked in the old times, and the women are bringing on the new front,” Johnson said. “She’s smiling down from heaven because this is something she’s a part of and always will be.”

Several states have passed ERA legislation. But neither the U.S. Constitution nor the Delaware Constitution explicitly protect women’s rights.

The First State, however, does mandate that women can’t be discriminated against when seeking employment, housing, financial aid or transportation.

But there is no overall protection for women in the Delaware code.

Supporters say the constitutional amendment is needed to ensure gender issues continue to be addressed as they evolve — and to prevent the passage of discriminatory laws.

Suzanne Moore, who founded Delaware ERA to push for passage, was in attendance during Thursday’s event.

“It feels absolutely outstanding. I can’t tell you how good it feels to see the end of a battle that began at the beginning of the 20th century for women to become equal,” Moore said.

“I think men had just gotten used to having a male culture and they didn’t believe women had to have equality. The churches were anti-equality because they thought that would mean the family unity would no longer exist without a mother in the home. You talk to men and they say we don’t need the ERA, it’s already alright—and that’s wrong.”

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