Well, today the Virginia legislature ratified the ERA, making it the 38th state to have done so. This does not mean that the ERA will be immediately effective. There are two major problems confronting ERA proponents (including me, natch).

First, 5 states that ratified the ERA have since passed acts that purport to rescind their ratification. While this is a barrier, I don’t judge this a particularly high hurdle to clear. There simply is no mechanism in the constitution that discusses, much less actually permits, a state that has ratified an amendment to take that ratification back. The constitutional process simply demands that a state ratifies it. Once a state has done so, it has done so. Anything after that is likely (but not certainly) constitutionally irrelevant.

Of course, a right-leaning judiciary might still attempt to hang up ratification on that point, but since it’s pretty flimsy and in pretty flagrant conflict with the actual constitutional text, so-called originalists would prefer to have another hook on which to hang their argument that the ERA cannot be put into effect. As it so happens, they do. That’s the second barrier: the ERA as written is simple and includes no deadline, but passage of the ERA was accompanied by text that gave the states only a limited amount of time to ratify, after which the amendment would be presumed not ratifiable. This deadline was extended once, but not again, and according to the accompanying text (as amended) time to ratify passed in 1982.

Now, the constitution also does not specify that Congress may limit the time period during which states may consider ratification, but this argument has decidedly more sympathy than the any argument that states might be able to “take back” ratification. After all, if they can take back ratification, there is no obvious reason that they can’t take back ratification of an amendment already in effect. This could potentially reducing the amendment to support levels below the threshold needed to bring the amendment into force. At that point, what would happen? Repeal of an in-force amendment? What if a single state repeals their ratification of the 9th amendment? Since there were only 13 states at the time, and only 10 required to put the amendment into effect, rescinded ratification by one state could result in a need to ratify by 26-29 states to restore the amendment’s force. All these reasons make it unlikely that even die-hard conservatives hell bent on defeating the ERA would rely much on the rescinded ratification argument when they have any other argument to make.

So it seems likely that whether or not the ERA becomes effective on Jan 15, 2022 will be dependent on whether courts agree or disagree with the argument that Congress has the power to include accompanying text limiting the ratification window.

Of course, what seems more likely to me is that ratification by a 38th state will put new pressure on Congress to pass a new amendment textually identical to the ERA so that states can then ratify the new version, and that that new pressure will be successful within fewer than 10 years. At that point, we will have 33 relatively easy ratifications. To gain the other 5 might be easier than people think, but won’t necessarily be easy in any absolute sense. It’s arguably true that at least some of the reason why the 12 states never to ratify have not more recently changed their minds is because the question of the ERA was considered irrelevant by most. With a new window for passage and an enthusiastic base of women pushing for passage, it will likely be much harder for a state’s conservatives to effectively oppose ratification in the 10 years after a new ERA passes than in the 10 years leading up to today.

Nothing is guaranteed, and neither sex nor gender equality is yet enshrined in the US constitution, but Jan 15, 2020 should still be remembered as a day to celebrate. Reaching 38 is a very important victory.


  1. Naglfar says

    I very much hope the ERA comes into force as soon as possible. It is necessary as a step to equality, and in addition will also give a great middle finger to reactionary misogynists, and serve as a reminder that we can win, even though we aren’t there yet.

  2. Mano Singham says

    Thanks for this post. I had been wondering about what would happen to the ERA ever since Democrats took control of the legislature and had been planning a post on it once I had looked into the various aspects, but your post has explained it well.

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