The Virginia General Assembly Did Little for Women’s Rights

Despite women taking a record number of legislative seats in Virginia, holding 38 out of the 140 seats, very little women’s rights legislation was passed this year. Bills dealing with a wide range of issues including reproductive rights, equal pay and parental leave were quickly defeated by Republican-controlled committees.

The General Assembly was given another chance to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, a federal amendment that states that the “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

Congress passed the amendment in 1972 and sent it to the states for ratification. For an amendment to be added to the Constitution, 38 states must approve it. To this day, only 36 states have ratified the amendment, not including Virginia. But lawmakers defeated the bill, citing that the deadline to ratify expired over 30 years ago.

In many parts of Virginia, women still live in a pay gap. Women are paid 78 cents to every dollar paid to men, and the difference is more significant for women of color. A bill that would have amended an existing law requiring equal pay to add benefits, such as paid time off, to the list of things employers cannot discriminate against on the basis of gender, was defeated. The bill would have also prohibited employers from punishing employees for sharing salary information with their coworkers.

Despite having support from the Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, a bill failed that would provide state workers with a 12-week medical and parental leave program. A bill also died that would have required Virginia businesses to offer paid family and medical leave to all full-time employees.

“Family is the bedrock of our society, and there’s nothing more important to a family than those first few months at home as they welcome and share joyous moments with their new child,” Cox said. “As a society, we have to do more to strengthen families and encourage women to remain in the workplace. Strong parental leave policies improve morale and reduce turnover, two things critical in public sector workplaces.”

Protections for women’s reproductive rights were defeated early in the session, such as a bill that would have repealed a current law that requires women who have become pregnant by rape or incest to report the assault to law enforcement before qualifying for state medical assistance for an abortion.

The same panel rejected bills that would waive the mandatory time period or physician review required before an abortion and remove language classifying facilities that perform five or more abortions per month as hospitals.

The Whole Woman’s Health Act, which would have put Virginia in line with the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt Supreme Court decision also failed. The act stated that access to abortion is a fundamental right, and laws that have no medical benefit that would block a woman seeking an abortion are unconstitutional. The act would eliminate requirements like the 24-hour waiting period and mandatory ultrasound.

House bills related to women’s rights on Richmond Sunlight
House bills with a keyword “women” on Richmond Sunlight

Women also pushed for an attempt to replace the “Day of Tears,” which marks the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, with the “Day of Women,” but the resolution failed.

Anti-abortion legislation also failed this session, such as Sen. Mark Obenshain’s, R-Harrisonburg, bill that would provide persons who have caused the death of a fetus while driving under the influence would be guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Women in prison, however, may take home a win this year. A bill that would make feminine hygiene products, like tampons, cost-free to women in state prison and jails is waiting to be signed by Gov. Ralph Northam.