The ERA in Virginia: A Power Playground

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 6 No. 3, "Passing Glances." Find more from that issue here.

If the Equal Rights Amendment is to be ratified by the required 38 states by March, 1979, some of the Southern legislatures will have to reverse their previous rejections and approve it. The struggle in many states — like Virginia — involves intense lobbying in the legislative halls and may well determine the fate of the ERA.  

Virginia Network News reporter George Bowles keeps telling ERA lobbyists that Virginia legislators want to see their women wearing crinoline, not carrying picket signs. “It’s militancy that’s killing ERA in the South,” he says. And in the wake of the arrests of two ERA lobbyists in Richmond last February, those not in tune with events might agree. But a closer look at how the ERA has been bandied about in the cloakrooms shows that the problem lies with the legislators themselves. 

In Virginia, as in many of the other 15 states which have not passed the ERA, the battle has less to do with the merits of equal rights for women than with the wheeling and dealing of legislators who use their votes to gain greater power in other fights. Every year since 1973, the struggle between the pro-ERA forces and captains of the legislature has intensified. It culminated finally in February, 1978, with the first arrests connected with the ERA debate since the amendment was originally introduced in Congress in 1923. 

The chief obstacle to passage in Virginia is a committee in each house of the legislature which must approve any proposed constitutional amendment before the entire legislature votes on it. Called the Privileges and Election (P&E) Committee, its members in each house are senior legislators with generally secure positions in their home districts. By using their capacity to keep the ERA off the floor — and thus sparing other legislators from embroilment in the controversy — the members of the P&E Committee can wield even greater influence among their colleagues. Some members have used their position to negotiate with other legislators on issues as remote as the legalizing of parimutuel gambling. 

The architect of this strategy, and until recently, its most skilled practitioner, is James M. Thomson, the brother-in-law of US Senator Harry F. Byrd, Jr. Thomson began serving in the House of Delegates in 1956, and by 1973, when the ERA first came up, he chaired the P&E Committee, served as majority leader for the House, and was generally known as the engineer of the Byrd machine in the legislature. Both pros and antis on the ERA issue fingered Thomson as the key figure in blocking and eventually killing the ERA each year. 

The dapper Thomson reveled in the controversy, wielding his power over the powerless feminists. His Alexandria constituents lobbied hard for ratification, but Thomson stood firm. Then, in 1975, using a plan developed by Marianne Fowler, one of Thomson’s colleagues on the city Democratic Committee, a small band of feminists targeted seven of the city’s 31 precincts in an effort to unseat him during the primary. While the feminists won overwhelmingly in six of the seven precincts, Thomson received enough support in other precincts to win the election. Bolstered by his triumph, Thomson once again led the ERA to defeat in committee in 1976, causing Virginia to share with Mississippi the dubious honor of never allowing a floor vote on the amendment. 

In the Senate, P&E chair Omer Hirst, who favors ratification, wields less power than Thomson, and the ratification effort there has been less flamboyant. Convinced in 1977 that the ERA could be ratified by the full Senate, Hirst persuaded his colleagues to discharge ERA from P&E to the Senate floor when the committee defeated it 8-7. Supporters were jubilant. Finally a floor vote was at hand, and all counts showed the necessary 21 votes in the “pro” column. Then, in what is becoming a recurring theme in the national ratification effort, Senator A. Joe Canada, who had campaigned on a pro-ERA platform, switched his vote, leaving the total one vote shy of Senate ratification. 

Jubilation gave way to rage. 

Rumors persisted that Canada, seeking the Republican lieutenant gubernatorial nomination, and Senator J. Marshall Coleman, contender for the Republican attorney general nomination, received pledges of support from conservative groups in exchange for nay votes on ERA. Both men held moderately progressive records, but such an offer would no doubt have appeal. Coleman, who remained loyal to ERA, and Canada were both nominated. Campaign disclosure forms show heavy conservative backing for Canada, including a $5,000 contribution from the Santa Monica, California-based Citizens for the Republic, headed by Ronald Reagan. 

During the general election, ERA opponents rallied around Canada, but he made few references to his ERA vote. He babbled endlessly throughout the summer and fall of 1977 about the dangers of the Panama Canal treaties to Virginia citizens, a tactic that brought ridicule from Democratic Party regulars across the state. His Democratic opponent, Charles S. “Chuck” Robb, son-inlaw of former President Johnson, smiled benignly each time it came up. “I don’t think the Virginia lieutenant governor,” Robb would say, “will have a decisive vote on that issue.” 

Feminists were not amused by Canada’s rhetoric. Mounting evidence shows the ERA has been used by the far right across the country as an organizing tool for other issues. Canada’s injection of the treaty into the 1977 Virginia race after receiving the Reagan money is viewed by many as a right-wing effort to build early public opposition to the treaties that were later ratified. Canada, of course, was the ultimate victim because he lost the race to Robb by an 8.5 percent margin as enraged feminists around the state denounced and voted against him. He stands to lose his state senate seat in 1979 in the strongly pro- ERA district of Virginia Beach. 

Canada’s duplicity and the approaching March, 1979, deadline politicized ERA supporters in Virginia. The Alexandria group that had challenged Thomson in 1975 began organizing a city-wide campaign for the fall election. Strategist Marianne Fowler formed a state-wide group, Virginians for the ERA Political Action Committee (VERA-PAC) to run similar projects in targeted legislative races. Meanwhile, the Virginia National Organization for Women organized an ERA Caravan, based on the winning Indiana formula, to marshal support for pro-ERA candidates. NOW state coordinator Jean Marshall Clarke and Fowler soon realized that both groups had similar goals, and the two groups joined forces by mid-March, 1977. These two groups organized political action committees around the state to work for pro-ERA candidates in the House of Delegates races. The impact of this organizing program is best seen in Lexington. There the Rockbridge ERA, organized in early May, came within 600 votes of unseating a 15-year veteran who later resigned, paving the way for his pro-ERA opponent to capture his seat in the 1978 special election. 

Member organizations of the Virginia ERA Ratification Council, a statewide coalition, stepped up their educational programs, sending speakers to churches, colleges and community meetings. By mid-summer, the ERA had become foremost in the public mind, and by October a poll conducted by a Washington, DC, consulting firm showed that 59 percent of Virginia’s voters favored ratification of the ERA, while only 28 percent opposed it. 

Local groups unrelated to the statewide effort began appearing, staging rallies and marches — even in districts where staunch anti-ERA incumbents went unchallenged. One locally spawned group, in the Staunton-Waynesboro area, lies in the same senatorial district as Lexington. When State Senator Coleman became attorney general, these two groups flexed their new political muscles and ensured a pro-ERA replacement. The winner, Democrat Frank Nolen, had been ousted from the seat in 1975 by Republican Coleman after voting against an ERA procedural move that year; this time, he pledged his complete support for the ERA, sacrificing some of his previous strong farm backing, including the anti- ERA Farm Bureau, for the winning votes of women. 

But the biggest 1977 race was in Jim Thomson’s Alexandria. Project coordinators Charlsie Armstrong and Susan Blair picked up Fowler’s 1975 plan and led a team of 300 volunteers in calling every household with registered voters in the city to locate pro-ERA voters. More than 10,000 pro-ERA households were found, and each received letters and a door-to-door visit encouraging a vote for the ERA with votes for both Democratic incumbent Richard Hobson and Republican challenger Gary Myers to defeat Thomson. 

As the polls closed on election day, the project’s success was undeniable. The campaign message had been that votes for Hobson and Myers were votes for the ERA, and in precinct after precinct, Hobson and Myers received a close vote total, while Thomson’s vote total fell below theirs. In little more than an hour after the polls had closed, Thomson conceded. 

Democrats around the state were stunned. Feminists claiming victory were publicly scoffed at, but privately, party regulars were agog that the ERA was no longer locked in a box. At first, Thomson denied that the ERA was a factor, but in December he told the Roanoke Times that the women were “entitled to their share of the cadaver.” 

Reaction to this challenge to the existing power structure was swift and decisive. The Alexandria Democratic Committee, violating its own by-laws, purged Marianne Fowler from her seat on the committee. In the legislature, Thomson’s defeat created a power struggle within the House Democratic ranks that left pro-ERA forces with little improvement. Liberals and right-wingers vied with the remnants of the Byrd machine for the key positions of House majority leader and Democratic caucus leader. The slots went to two anti-ERA veterans, A. L. Philpott and C. Hardaway Marks. The feminists and their allies were even outmaneuvered in an attempt to get the Democratic caucus to adopt a rules change that would put the ERA to a vote on the House floor before the 1979 deadline. The ERA’S chief House sponsor, Dorothy McDiarmid, eying an appointment to P&E, convinced ERA supporters to soften their demands by saying that new appointments to the seven vacancies on the committee, coupled with the pro-ERA leadership of new chair Warren White, would create a more favorable climate there and that the ERA would probably come to the floor anyway. If it didn’t, she agreed, a discharge motion could be made similar to the one used to get the amendment onto the Senate floor. 

McDiarmid, the grand lady of the General Assembly, believes in playing primly by the rules. The smoke-filled cloakroom is outside her sphere, making her no match for political dealers like Thomson, Philpott and Marks. She didn’t rock the boat when the caucus proved rigid, and she wasn’t appointed to P&E either. 

The General Assembly opened in January, 1978, with virtually no ERA activity in the Senate. Attention was riveted again on the House’s notorious P&E Committee. Pro-ERA forces were highly visible in multiple lobbying offices in the creaky Raleigh Hotel across the street from Capitol Square. Their task was to translate the voters’ majority sentiment for ERA into a legislative victory. To keep up the pressure that had been building all year, lobbyists unfurled banners, published a thrice-weekly newsletter, staged a labor-sponsored rally and captured daily press coverage. While traditional groups like the League of Women Voters lobbied actively, VERA-PAC’s Fowler and NOW’s Clarke emerged as the leaders, recognized by the ERA’s legislative friends and foes alike as the chief political strategists. 

The opposition forces were less visible, organizing one massive lobbying day and busing in conservative churchgoers from Norfolk and students from Liberty Baptist College in Lynchburg. Virginia Stop ERA head Elyse O’Neill worked from newly elected Republican Delegate Robert L. Thoburn’s office. Thoburn, a segregation academy administrator with far-right connections who met with Thomson before the session opened, emerged as 1978’s most outspoken ERA opponent. 

The new P&E chair for the House, Warren White, who was recuperating from a massive heart attack in the fall, felt pressure from both sides. A gentle man who favors ratification, White was nevertheless determined to establish a reputation for fairness. Renouncing the Thomson image that came with the gavel, he refused to use his influence to deal for votes, and sponsored a public hearing prior to the Committee’s vote, thus telling pro-ERA lobbyists the task was theirs. White’s reticence allowed Philpott and Marks to fill the Thomson void. 

The air in the Capitol and in the adjacent office building was electric as opposing forces faced each other at the public hearing February 8. Capitol police, jumpy from the tension, barred lobbyists on both sides from the General Assembly Office Building until minutes before the hearing began. Witnesses from each side spoke to the legal, religious and emotional reasons for and against ERA. But the real star was clearly former Attorney General Andrew P. Miller, candidate for the US Senate. In 1974, a memo from Miller’s office had legitimized the arguments that the ERA would require sexually integrated public rest rooms, legalize homosexual marriages and permit federal intervention in the Virginia legislative process. As the 1976 outstanding attorney general in the nation, Miller had a following in other unratified states where anti-ERA forces circulated the memo. Miller lost his 1977 primary bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in part because feminists held him responsible for the ERA’s repeated defeat in more than one state. Recognizing that his senatorial bid could not succeed unless he made peace with ERA forces, Miller asked to speak at the hearing. Reading testimony prepared by Jean Clarke, Miller recanted each section of the memo. Across the room, A. L. Philpott, who had been a strong Miller supporter in the gubernatorial bid, turned his back — refusing to watch or to sanction the political drama unfolding before the committee. 

The P&E Committee vote was scheduled for the next day, February 9. Spectators, camera crews and reporters began assembling three hours before the committee actually met. Capitol police were everywhere — in corridors, in aisles, in doorways. Would-be spectators crowded the halls outside the committee room. Finally, the committee began arriving; all members were present except Earl Bell, pro-ERA delegate from Loudoun County. The tension heightened as White sent aides scurrying around the Capitol in search of Bell. Red-faced, he finally arrived, having gone to the wrong room. The long-awaited vote was quickly over with 12 nays and eight ayes for reporting the bill, followed by a swift parliamentary maneuver by Philpott and Marks to ensure there would be no reconsideration of the bill. 

A stunned crowd began moving weakly to the doorway. One small group of women sang — badly and off-key — a chorus from Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman.” One middle-aged lobbyist sobbed uncontrollably. Outside the committee room, chants of “Remember Thomson” and “Get the Dirty Dozen” echoed in Thomas Jefferson’s rotunda. 

Suddenly, Capitol police, as if on cue, seized Marianne Fowler as she left the committee room, rushed her out of the building, down the driveway and onto the street. Struggling to free her pinned arms, Fowler spat on an officer. The crowd and camera crews ran behind, and all huddled on the sidewalk outside the Capitol grounds, interviewing and being interviewed. The police positioned themselves along the driveway and on the lawn, nervously watching the crowd outside. 

Slowly the crowd dwindled and crews packed their equipment. The remaining ERA supporters began walking back to the Capitol, hoping to meet with legislative friends to plan their next move. Suddenly, Jean Clarke was stopped and threatened with arrest if she proceeded further on state property. Protesting her right to be there, she was quickly dragged several feet by the police. Fowler ran to her aid and was immediately whisked into a waiting police car. The hefty Clarke required four grunting policemen to stuff her behind Fowler. 

The two women were later released on their own recognizance after being charged with disorderly conduct and trespassing on the Capitol grounds. Fowler was also charged with assault for spitting. In court a few days later, prosecutors asked for a continuance. As ERA supporters left the courtroom, Clarke was re-arrested and charged with assault for allegedly striking an officer with her knee during her first arrest. The case has been taken by the ACLU and will go to trial in September. 

When it was clear that the Old Guard had won this first skirmish of 1978, many of the ERA’s legislative friends weakened. McDiarmid called Capitol police to apologize for the lobbyists’ behavior and told the press she was disappointed in them. To symbolize the invincibility of the old power structure, Thomson appeared in Richmond the next day — his first visit of the session. 

Fearing that support might shift in wake of the arrests, lobbyists began polling delegates on procedural moves the next day. Not one vote had changed; yet McDiarmid refused to make good her promise to introduce a discharge motion to get the ERA out of committee and onto the full House floor. Tempers flared on both sides and lobbyists looked to freshmen Elsie Heinz and Gary Myers for help; both had been elected by pro- ERA forces. But they both refused to introduce the discharge motion, apparently fearing the wrath of House leadership above the wrath of their pro-ERA constituents. 

As the dust from the battle settled, it was clear that the ERA had been badly bruised. It had not, however, been beaten. The voting booth will be the next battleground. One lobbyist told a P&E committee member before this year’s vote, “We’re going to replace you all, and we’re going to replace you all with us. I like your office. It has a nice, sunny location; I could be very comfortable here.” He laughed, and he voted “aye.” But the lessons of defeated legislators Thomson and Canada have yet to be learned by all.  

"That Women May Learn Truths"

ELIZABETH CITY, NC - With legislative debates for and against ERA still raging, memories of W. O. Saunders surface. 

Saunders, who edited a weekly newspaper for nearly 30 years here starting at the turn of the century, was one of the South’s most outspoken advocates of equality for women. And he was a man of decisive action as well as iconoclastic word. His word or deed either seared the ear or warmed the heart. Seldom was there any middle ground with regard to Saunders, who proudly called himself “the independent man” and his paper The Independent

H. L. Mencken is reputed to have found Saunders among the few things in Southern life he did not detest. “If the South had forty editors like W. O. Saunders,” Mencken said, “it could be rid of most of its troubles in five years.” 

Entrenched courthouse politicians, evangelists and patent medicines were Saunders’ favorite targets. He sustained libel suit after libel suit from the politicians and preachers, and, miraculously, sustained life without revenue from the patent medicine ads. 

That he was tough on what he called the “spleen-surfeited plotters” he saw in rural northeastern North Carolina was evident when he once reported that his chief political adversary, whose name he printed, “was seen in the courthouse one day this week with his hands in his own pockets.” 

But it was his unending efforts on behalf of women which sent me to his son’s loving biography for a memory refreshed. Keith Saunders’ The Independent Man was published in 1962. Much of the book is in his father’s own fiery words. During the early ’20s, North Carolina’s lawmakers in their wisdom enacted laws prohibiting publication of birth control information. This infuriated Saunders, whose fuse could be lit with half a spark. 

He invited Margaret Sanger, the nationally famous advocate of birth control, to speak in Elizabeth City. She accepted. It was her first trip into the South on a public speaking engagement. Saunders rented a movie house for the event, and gave it a big play in his paper. 

The house was packed the Sunday afternoon Ms. Sanger spoke. Men and women were present. She talked for two hours about the birth control movement, and its importance in her lights. When she finished not a person stirred to leave. Saunders, sensing they wanted to hear more, stood and said, “I know exactly what you good women in this audience want to hear. Fortunately, there is not a word in the statutory laws of North Carolina prohibiting the dissemination of birth control information by word of mouth. So, if the men in this audience will depart quietly and then leave the house to the women, we shall have a birth control clinic here this afternoon, that women may learn truths that will indeed make them free.” 

Ms. Sanger spoke for another two hours. 

In a 1923 editorial Saunders wrote about women (and what his paper stood for), he said: “They have no vote . . . and are but infants before the law. The Independent works for them. It shows them how politics affects their every day life and how those politics are corrupted by men. We put woman in the position to talk intelligently to her male dependents and persuade them in the way they should conduct all public affairs.” 

News about women, or of presumed interest to them only, wasn’t segregated to one section of his paper. Once, for example, Saunders learned that a young woman had rescued her husband from a mean-spirited mule. The animal had the man cornered in a stable and had repeatedly kicked him. The story made the front page under this typically Saunders headline: “Bride of Three Weeks Beats Ass Off Husband.” 

Saunders was killed in an automobile accident in 1940. Three years earlier, he had been forced to suspend publication. The Depression was a major factor, but to the end he refused to run patent medicine ads, saying “. . . if every newspaper in America were to follow suit, Americans would recover from most of their female troubles, kidney troubles, nerve disorders, halitosis, athlete’s foot, etc., almost overnight.” Still, as son Keith noted, his father’s attacks on cherished shams helped, too. 

- Frank Adams