Delaware’s first congresswomen honored for ERA fight

Rep. Valerie Longhurst speaks during the ERA Conversation to Honor Trailblazing Legislators at the Delaware Archives on Thursday. The event honors the women from the 126th Delaware General Assembly who ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment in 1972. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — In the early 1970s, six female trailblazers from the 126th Delaware General Assembly set out to make a bold change for women as they worked to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The legislative action the six women championed was approved by the U.S. Congress March 22, 1972, seeking equal rights for all regardless of their sex. The amendment would then need to be ratified by 38 of the 50 states to be put in the United States Constitution by its deadline of June 30, 1982.

Keeping with its moniker of the “First State,” Delaware was among the first to ratify the amendment, doing so the very next day after Congress’ decision thanks to the persistence of those six legislators and others who voted alongside them.

To date, only 37 states have ratified the amendment. Congress has repeatedly introduced the Equal Rights Amendment since 1982, letting the dream flicker with hope for women’s rights activists across the country liked those inspired by the legislators in Delaware.

Sen. Louise Conner, Rep. Marion Seibel, Sen. Margaret Manning, Rep. Clarice Heckert, Rep. Henrietta Johnson and Rep. Joan Wright were honored for their hard work Thursday during a special event held at the Delaware Public Archives.

Their legacy continues to yield dividends with the state House approving a proposed amendment to Delaware’s Constitution guaranteeing equal rights based on sex on Thursday.

A conversation about the Equal Rights Amendment, “47 years in the making: Recognizing the women of the 126th General Assembly,” featured stories from family members of those six legislators and other special speakers like Gov. John Carney, Dr. Marie Laberge of University of Delaware, former Senator Karen Peterson and Majority Whip Valerie Longhurst.

Current female legislators pose with posters of former legislators from 1972 during the ERA Conversation to Honor Trailblazing Legislators at the Delaware Archives on Thursday. The event honors the women from the 126th Delaware General Assembly who ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment in 1972. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“They wanted to make sure Delaware was the first state,” Rep. Longhurst said.

Former Sen. Peterson, who sponsored an unsuccessful Equal Rights Amendment of her own several years ago, told the standing room only crowd inside the Delaware Public Archives, “I had the privilege of knowing most of the women, if not all women, whose pictures are on display here today. … These were bold, smart, strong women. They were definitely not the ladies’ auxiliary of the 126th General Assembly. They paved the way for those of us who followed in their footsteps and we are forever indebted to them.”

First females at Legislative Hall

The stories told by their family members portrayed women who couldn’t easily be deterred from their mission toward justice.

“When my mother first got to the legislature, to the state Senate, she was the second [woman] senator, Meg Manning was there first by two years, so Meg was a little bit of a mentor, as well as a friend. And Meg, one day, was sort of startled when my mother complained that a lot of the Senate business was actually being done in breaks between sessions and breaks in the caucus rooms when the men would go to the restroom and would continue to use that discussion forum to do the state’s business,” former Sen. Connor’s son, Herbert Connor, said.

“And she came to realize from comments that were made when they came back from the restroom that things had happened there that she had not been a party to. And Meg said, ‘Let me show you something.’ They went in to the ladies’ restroom and went over by the wall that separated the two and they listened carefully and they could hear every word. And my mother explained it to my sister and then added with that mischievous look and twinkle in her eye, ‘There’s more than one way to work for women’s rights.”

Former Sen. Manning’s son, Bill Manning, confirmed the story, saying, “It is fair to say that things were different in Dover when mother arrived in 1956. And the story that just got told is absolutely dead true. When mother arrived, and this was a little before that time, Legislative Hall wasn’t even equipped for women legislators. The lower portion of Legislative Hall was a place where women didn’t go.

“There would be poker and bourbon. And it’s not that they were prohibited, it just wasn’t a very fun place for them to be. And that was the challenge that women legislators faced in those days. Delaware was just not equipped . . . for the role that women would play in this city. I’m very glad that that has all changed and that this event is a bigger step foot forward.”

All of the six legislators honored during the Equal Rights Amendment event Thursday faced their own challenges as the first group of women to walk through Legislative Hall as voting members of the General Assembly.

Former Rep. Johnson, the first African-American woman elected to the General Assembly in Delaware, saw those challenges and met them with tenacity and pride, according to her family.

“I can say that it really makes me feel proud to see so many women of color,” her son Johnny Johnson said with his wife, daughters and granddaughters on stage behind him. “My mother always had a vision. To have different things in the community, for our community, for our children, for our seniors, things that were unheard of. Being the first black woman legislator in the state of Delaware was unheard of. She took great pride in that.”

These women left behind them a legacy in Delaware that would last a lifetime for both their families and legislators who would come behind them to carry on the cause of equal rights for all.

Decades later

With the Equal Rights Amendment still waiting for action by Congress, Sen. Dave McBride introduced a similar amendment in 1984 to no avail.

Former Sen. Peterson explained to the crowd Thursday how she was invited to join a group more than 30 years later that was preparing for the ratification of another amendment should Congress move in that direction.

“And being the old women’s liber that I am, I jumped at the chance to join Susan (Moore)’s group — ERA Now. During the course of one of our meetings in 2016, I mentioned that while we were waiting for Congress to act, that maybe we could work on adding an Equal Rights Amendment to Delaware’s Constitution,” she said.

The senator went home, searched through the Delaware Constitution and was surprised with what she found.

“… I looked for the equal protection clause in the Delaware Constitution, thinking that we could just add ‘sex’ to whatever language was already there. But low and behold, I found that there was no equal protection clause in the Delaware Constitution. So, I decided to write one,” she continued.

Her bill was also not passed by the General Assembly, she says, because it included every protected class, not just women.

“It immediately triggered hysteria from the far right,” she said. “I ended up having to table the bill on June 14, 2016. And, of course, the legislative clock ran out on June 30th. Since I was retiring from the Senate that year, I figured that was the end of the road for a state Equal Rights Amendment. Luckily, I was wrong again. The following year, Rep. Valerie Longhurst introduced a brand-new Equal Rights Amendment. And although the bill was not successful the first go around, she persisted. And that, of course, brings us to where we are today – on the brink of adding women to the Delaware state Constitution.”

The conversational event concluded with a walk to neighboring Legislative Hall where House Bill 1, an Equal Rights Amendment written by Rep. Longhurst for Delaware’s own Constitution, would be heard and voted on by the House of Representatives.

“The reality is right now there is no federal protection. And because of that, 23 states have changed their state’s constitutions to provide equal protection under their state constitution. Delaware is on the path to join those states,” Dr. Laberge said during the event. “One survey has found that 80 percent of American’s actually believe we have equal rights under the constitution. We do not. Hopefully, here in Delaware we will very shortly rectify that situation.”

At around 3 p.m., the House of Representatives voted on the measure which sought to add a one-sentence section to the Delaware Constitution reading, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex.”

Natalia Pane, granddaughter of Rep. Heckert, told legislators before they voted, “We are here nearly five decades later to honor those who were merely present. . . You will be remembered by Delaware’s daughters and granddaughters for decades for being present to cast your vote today.”

House Bill 1 passed with only six no votes – Reps. Richard Collins, W. Shannon Morris, Charles Postles Jr., Jesse Vanderwende, Lyndon Yearick and Minority Whip Timothy Dukes. Those who expressed concerns were worried about a lack of clarifying language which might clear up gender confusion. They were also worried about the amendment being used to support the state funding of abortions.

Bill sponsor Sen. Stephanie Hansen explained to the crowd earlier in the day at the Delaware Public Archives that proponents believe those should not be concerns, after all.

“House Bill 1 will be filed in the laws of Delaware in its entirety for future reference,” she said. “A court interpreting this amendment in the future will look to the legislative intent. And the legislative intent is black and white in section one, which states, ‘A declaration of rights carries with it the promise that the state of Delaware will not impair a person the opportunity to exercise those rights. It does not require the state to fund the exercise of those rights.’”

House Bill 1 will now go on to the Senate before it can amend the Delaware Constitution.

“We all do stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. I am ready. I am ready. I am excited. This is wonderful,” Sen. Hansen said. “A patchwork of protections addressing only today’s issues is shortsighted and no longer good enough. So, it’s time. Actually, no. It’s passed time. And we want it in writing. Not just any writing. We want equality as a fundamental principle enshrined in our constitution for today, tomorrow and every day forward.”

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