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2018 issue
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Good Government Requires Good

There is a banner on Broad Street displayed on a fence surrounding the construction area that will eventually become the newly preserved AND redesigned General Assembly Building. It declares the site to be "History in the Making," referring to what will be an integral addition to Capitol Square.

There is also a billboard high above I-64 and I-95 featuring the image of a young girl standing proudly in front of the text, "We the People...." It entreats returning legislators and all Virginians, "Let's make history!" referring to the movement for the Commonwealth to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution.

And there are many other versions of the phrase "history-making" that have been dominating the headlines when referring to the most recent election in Virginia, as well as the current legislative session.

Of course, as the oldest continuous law-making body in the New World, the Virginia General Assembly is no stranger to influencing history. But it is uniquely positioned to once again play an important role in amending the nation's frame of government.

At the end of the 2016 session, I wrote an article for the Spring issue of this magazine with the title, "Women of Virginia Make History–Again," referring to the Centennial Rally for Equal Rights in February of that year, a reenactment of an event that occurred in February 1915 when suffragists took to the Capitol steps asking for women to receive the right to vote. The rally in 2016 was organized not only to commemorate the original purpose of acquiring voting rights, but also to call upon the General Assembly to help secure all rights for women.

Resolutions to this effect have been written in both the Senate of Virginia and the House of Delegates over the years. Ratification measures have passed with bipartisan support in the Senate five times since 2010, but they have never been debated on the House floor. Each time, the resolutions have ended up being killed in a House committee.

As it turned out, the two years following the Centennial Rally became banner years for women in politics. In 2016, the first female candidate was nominated for president by a major U.S. political party and won the popular vote. Then in 2017, the Women's March on January 21st became the largest single-day protest in American history. Record numbers of women have gotten involved both locally and regionally. Many have run and are running for offices across the country and Time Magazine's 2017 "Person of the Year" cover featured a group of women's rights activists.

Here in Virginia, history was also made last year when November's Democratic sweep flipped 15 seats in the House of Delegates, replacing 11 men with women. Women now hold a record 28 of 100 seats in that chamber, up from 17 last year. In fact, they hold a record number of 38 out of 140 seats in the General Assembly as a whole.

Among this distinguished new group of members are the first Latinas, the first Asian-American women, and the first lesbian to be elected to the chamber, as well as the first openly transgender woman elected to any state legislature in the United States. Republicans also seated their youngest-ever woman."

There was a groundbreaking in December on the first phase of the Virginia Women's Monument that will grace Capitol Square. Then Governor Terry McAuliffe said that the monument, representing four centuries of women's contributions to our great Commonwealth, will be the first of its kind on the grounds of any state capitol in the United States.

Now new Governor Ralph Northam has appointed eight women to his 15-member Cabinet, which his office emphasizes is the first time in history that a Virginia governor's inner circle will have a female majority.

Delegate Vivian Watts, the longest-serving woman in the House, delivered a floor speech commemorating the history of women in Virginia Government on the second day of this session. When mentioning the recent election, Watts smiled. "We didn't crack the ceiling. We shattered it." She also noted that the legislature's culture has changed tremendously since she was one of four women elected to the House in 1982, which was a new record at that time.

The same day as Watts' speech ten-year-old Eastan Weber, the Virginia girl featured on the Richmond billboard, was allowed on the House floor to give newly-elected Speaker Kirk Cox a bouquet of flowers. Afterwards, she and other advocates were introduced from the House floor by Delegate Kaye Kory, a sponsor of one of the ERA-related bills.

With the unprecedented growth of women in Virginia's government, both proponents and bipartisan sponsors of these bills are hopeful that this is the year that the state will ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Right now, 69 out of 140 sitting legislators have either signed on to this year's bills and/or were patrons in a prior year.

The modern-day suffragists from that 2016 Centennial Rally have been back on Capitol Square talking to legislators from day one. And they've been joined by many more men and women who have become inspired to take up the cause.

Eileen Davis, co-founder of the Virginia group Women-Matter, points out, "The ERA was part of the dialogue — part of what got record numbers of women elected this past year. And they are committed to getting it passed."

This renewed energy was originally boosted last year on the 45th anniversary of Congress submitting the Equal Rights Amendment to the states. On March 22, Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the amendment and the first to do so after the expiration of the original deadline. The rest of the country was watching. So were many Virginians.

There are now only two more states needed to make gender equality a Constitutional right. And Virginia is the only Commonwealth that has not signed on.

Candace Graham, the other founder of Women-Matter, emphasizes, "The fact that Nevada ratified it nullifies the argument that Virginia can't because the deadline expired. It gives us a jumpstart."

Kim Wright, founder of the group LWCC–Liberal Women of Chesterfield County & Beyond, reminds legislators, "It's about timely issues that their constituents care about. We're seeing a resurgence of the women's movement, and the fact that 11 more women just joined the ranks of the House is further proof that Virginians want women to be an active part of our government. Passing the ERA would be evidence that our representatives listen."

It all comes back to Virginia's long-time role in making American history and the opportunities that are being presented now. Newly sworn-in Governor Ralph Northam talked about Virginia moving forward in his Inaugural speech. In fact, one of the closing lines was, "This country is once again looking to Virginia to lead the way." The whole country is watching us. In fact, the whole world is watching.

The now famous Richmond billboard also reads, "Not One More GenERAtion." What about not one more year? What if this is the year that Virginia leads the way by ratifying the ERA? "What if" indeed. Only time…and this session…will tell.

Sarah Alderson is an award-winning freelance writer who also works in the General Assembly broadcast control rooms during sessions and the Capitol Studio throughout the year. She can be reached at