Equal Rights Amendment supporters rally in Dover

Gov. John Carney and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester stand next to the Fearless Girl statue during a ERA rally at Legislative Hall on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — “What do we need?”

“ERA (equal rights amendment)!”

“When do we need it?”

“Now.”

That was the chant on the steps of Legislative Hall on Wednesday during a womens’ rights rally in support of a proposed bill amending the state’s constitution.

House Bill 299 would add a section that states: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged on account of the sex of the person” to Article 1 of the state’s constitution.

Women hold signs during a ERA rally at Leg Hall on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Pumping up support for the bill at the rally was Gov. John Carney, U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, all Democrats, and the bill’s primary sponsor state Rep. Valerie Longhurst. They were joined by other politicians, delegates and well-wishers.

But, the star on the steps was arguably the “Fearless Girl” statue.

Designed by Lewes artist Kristen Visbal, the statue made a stir last year when it appeared overnight opposite the Wall Street bull statue in New York City as part of a female empowerment statement.

Kathy Hughes of Lewes takes a photo with her phone during a ERA rally at Leg Hall on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Ms. Visbal, who brought the replica of her statue to the Dover event, insisted that although the statue was built to make a statement about Wall Street’s “male dominated business community” it meant something different to everyone. Asking the rally of hundreds of residents what it meant to them met with shouts of “courage,” “bravery,” “confidence,” “unstoppable” and “determined.”

Ms. Visbal said, for her, statues and legislation alike are for busting stereotypes.

“Women go around with these ideas of gender stereotypes in their heads and they can inhibit them from actually achieving what they could,” she said. “Wipe your mind clean, go out there and get what you want!”

For Rep. Blunt Rochester, Fearless Girl is about inspiration.

“When I look at Fearless Girl and I look at the little girls here in front of me, It makes me think of myself as a little girl,” she said at the rally. “I was born in the 60s, grew up in the 70s, and saw the civil rights movement, women’s movement and the peace movement. It wasn’t that people didn’t have fear back then, the just stepped up anyway. It was about having heroes and sheroes to inspire us.”

Passage of HB 299 would only be the first step in the long process of making a constitutional amendment. A two-thirds vote in both the state House and Senate would also be required to approve the change.

The U.S. Congress had passed an equal rights amendment in 1972, but it was not ratified by the requisite number of states by the 1982 deadline. Delaware was one of the first states to ratify the Amendment. About half of U.S. states have passed equal rights amendments to their state constitutions.

Supporters of the bill claim that without an equal rights amendment, women’s rights and protections are limited. They claim the amendment is necessary to correct a constitutional shortcoming, reduce sex-based disparities and to codify the “state’s value of equality.”

“Women are more than half the population and we deserve equal standing just like men,” said Rep. Longhurst at the rally. “We’re tired of being told that we can’t be both good mothers and employees. We’re tired of getting paid less than our male colleagues for the exact same work.

“As I stand here, I think of the Delaware women who fought for suffrage years ago and their passion and voices enacted real change. Winning the right to vote was a bitter battle and if fundamentally shaped politics today. We have to harness that same power.”

Gov. Carney, who supports the legislation, thinks Delaware needs to help set an example for the other states and the nation as a whole.

Sen. Stephanie Hanson speaks during a ERA rally at Leg Hall on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

“This is our opportunity in our state’s constitution to lay out, very clearly, the importance of equal rights for women,” the Democrat said. “The time is now. The time is up. It’s been far too many years. We’re going to do it here in Delaware.

HB 299 was released from committee later on Wednesday afternoon and is widely expected to pass in both chambers in the coming weeks.

A day for women in capitol

The rally wasn’t the only womens’ event in the capitol building on Wednesday — it was preceded by a “Redefining Women in the Workplace” lecture at the Public Archives across the street in the morning.

The event featured a talk by Lisa Maatz, a national women’s advocate, in honor of Sen. Margaret Rose Henry’s recently announced retirement and Women’s History Month. In 1994, Sen. Henry became the first black women to be elected to the state Senate. Last January, she also became the first black majority leader to server in either chamber of the legislature.

“Sen. Margaret Rose Henry is a trailblazer, and we are going to miss her leadership in Dover,” said Gov. Carney. “Her commitment to the advancement of women is exactly why we are honoring her at this event today. It’s been a privilege to work with her protecting Delaware’s most vulnerable citizens.”

The lecture was also notable in that it was one of the first events launched by the Delaware’s Office of Women’s Advancement and Advocacy. The office was formed after being established by House Bill 4, which was signed last July.

According to its administrators, the office is responsible for overseeing the state’s women’s right to work, including leading the ongoing implementation of women’s rights legislation, evaluating current legislation, building support for new legislation and advising the Governor’s office and Legislature. The office will “review and report on the status of women in the state.” It will also oversee the Delaware Commission for Women, Delaware Women’s Hall of Fame Committee and the Delaware Women’s Workforce Council.

The keynote speaker, Ms. Maatz, is the former vice president of Government Relations at the American Association of University Women and leader of several national coalitions working to advance opportunities for women and girls. In her presentation, she focused on issues including sexual harassment in the workplace, equal pay and paid parental leave.

“One of the things I’m really impressed about with Delaware is the innovation in terms of legislation and the programs in the executive branch that speak directly to the issue of redefining women in the workplace,” she said during the lecture. “A survey that just came last week out shows that 78 percent of adults think that it’s a good thing that women have careers as well as children. What’s fascinating is that number is up from 46 percent in 2000. That’s not too long ago. It’s an opportunity, and it looks like Delaware is rising to try to meet it.

“But, the same survey shows that 61 percent of women and 43 percent of men felt that women were not being treated equally in the workplace. That number hasn’t changed since 1999, so it looks like there is still work to be done.”

At the close of the event, Sen. Henry reflected on her political career. Although she plans to retire at the end of this term, she said she still has work to complete.

“We’ve done a lot of good work, but there’s more to be done,” she said. “ Right now, today in fact, I still have about 14 pieces of legislation I’m trying to get passed.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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