Harnessing the power of its new Democratic majority, the Virginia legislature is poised to vote this week to become the 38th of the 38 states needed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which would make women's rights explicit in the Constitution. In the video Op-Ed above, the filmmaker Ken Burns compares this historic moment with the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote 100 years ago.
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This is the Tennessee House chamber on August 18, 1920. The room is full of roses, yellow worn by those supporting women's suffrage and red by those against. It's tense. All eyes are on the clerk as he counts the votes. After decades of tireless campaigning and 144 years after Thomas Jefferson declared all white, property-owning men equal, the battle for women's suffrage came down to a single vote, cast by the youngest member of the legislature, carrying a note from his mother. This vote ratified the 19th Amendment and guaranteed women the right to vote. It's an incredible story and reminds us of how even constitutional amendments, so national in their scope, ultimately get decided on a very local, human level. It brings politics home. We have one of the world's oldest and shortest Constitutions. And its authors recognized the need for it to evolve with time. The process is undoubtedly arduous. It took 203 years to pass the 27th Amendment, which revised congressional pay. But it allows we, the people, to determine the law. In 1923, three years after the 19th Amendment was ratified, suffragist Alice Paul proposed a new amendment, one that would declare men and women equal under the law, not just at the polls. It became known as the Equal Rights Amendment, the E.R.A. Today, nearly 100 years later, its passage still hangs in the balance. This year, as we approach the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment's ratification, the E.R.A. will be a subject of local debate as supporters will work to get the 38th and final state to ratify. Eyes will be on several of the state legislatures who have yet to ratify, including Virginia, North Carolina and Arizona. Its history is fascinating. After it was proposed in 1923, the E.R.A. was presented in every session of Congress for nearly 50 years. In 1940, the Republican Party was the first to include support for the amendment in its platform. When Congress eventually passed the E.R.A. in 1972, it went to the states for ratification. It was quickly approved by 33 states. But the opposition, led by a woman, ran a campaign so strong the amendment was still three states short by the deadline. "By coming here today, you have shown that that is not what American women want." In recent years, galvanized by the #MeToo movement and the ratification of the 200-year-old 27th Amendment, supporters have pushed for ratification from three remaining states, hoping Congress will adjust the deadline. In 2017, Nevada voted to ratify, followed a year later by Illinois. History is being made. And it's happening right in our backyards. And that's why I want to show you this moment, from 1920, in the Tennessee House chamber, when the 19th Amendment hung in the balance. "The Suffragists needed one more vote. And as the fateful roll call began, they had no idea where it might come from. Harry Burn, from McMinn County, the youngest man in the legislature, was cautious. Most of his constituents were against votes for women. And he had come into the chamber that morning with a red rose in his buttonhole. But he also carried, folded in his pocket, a letter from his mother." "Dear son, vote for suffrage and don't keep them in doubt. I noticed some of the speeches against. They were very bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood but have not seen anything yet. Don't forget to be a good boy. With lots of love, mama." "When the roll call reached him, Harry Burn voted to ratify. His single vote ended 72 years of painful struggle. The 19th Amendment was now law. Women's suffrage had, at last, been written into the Constitution. And the goal that had first been proposed in Seneca Falls in 1848 had been reached. Asked to explain himself later, Harry Burn said simply, I know that a mother's advice is always safest for a boy to follow." I love that story on so many levels. It's one of the great single deciding votes in our history. And it was cast by a 24-year-old who changed his mind on the spot thanks to a letter from his mother. It's an interesting echo to the process we're seeing unfold around the renewed efforts to pass the E.R.A. You know, the most recent vote to consider the E.R.A. was in Virginia in February 2019. Guess how many votes it fell short by?