Nevada on Wednesday became the first state to approve the Equal Rights Amendment decades after the deadline to enshrine in the U.S. Constitution that women and men are equal under the law.
Lawmakers who backed the amendment say it is a profound and overdue gesture for women who continue to experience discrimination 45 years after Congress first submitted it to the states. Though the move is only symbolic, supporters say it would be pivotal if Congress ever extends the 1982 deadline.
It brought the nation two states shy of ratifying the amendment. Four Democratic members of the Republican-controlled Congress introduced legislation this year that would restart the clock on its approval.
Activists rallied around Nevada’s action in part to unite the millions who marched for women’s rights a day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
“Nevada today reminded us of the bittersweet progress when it comes to gender equality — how far women have come and still how far we have to go in the fight for equal rights,” said Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who was elected Nevada’s first female U.S. senator in November.
Republican opponents echoed the arguments made a century ago when women were fighting for the right to vote and for equal protections: that the amendment would disrupt the culture of the American family and compel women to the front lines of combat.
Some, including Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, have said they are concerned the amendment could have ramifications such as reversing U.S. Supreme Court decisions that the right to an abortion does not carry an entitlement to have it publicly funded.
Sen. Pat Spearman, a Democrat who sponsored the measure, said it’s about ensuring equal rights and that many of the arguments opposing it are misogynistic.
Women’s organizations held watch parties across the country to stream the state Senate’s final vote.
For Melanie Meehan-Crossley, the traction the amendment gained Wednesday was the culmination of a half-century of grit and determination.
The retired attorney helped establish the Northern Virginia chapter of the National Organization for Women and lobbied Congress to initiate the amendment in 1972. She later worked at the Nevada attorney general’s office.
“It feels wonderful,” Meehan-Crossley said after watching the vote. “I really hope this momentum that we have now will serve to enlighten younger women.”
Another activist, Janette Dean, said women’s organizations are holding celebratory rallies in three California cities this weekend. She said coalitions that pushed the amendment in Nevada are setting their sights next on Virginia and Illinois, where lawmakers narrowly defeated the proposal as recently as 2014.
“We just needed to have another log on the fire to get the fire going,” activist Peggy Lear Bowen said. “Women’s rights have no time limit; there’s no expiration date on our toes.”
The amendment required approval from 38 states to take effect, and 35 states ratified it by 1977. No others joined by the 1982 cutoff.
If the amendment is reopened for consideration, the previous ratifications would stand and just two more states would need to approve it.
Nine state legislatures have reconsidered the amendment since the deadline, with Nevada finally passing it on its seventh attempt in 45 years. Nevada is among four states with the highest percentages of female state lawmakers and its voters backed Hillary Clinton for president.
The measure does not require Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s signature, but he said earlier this month he supports it.