Virginia NOW - Achieving Equality Through Targeted Legislative and Political Action
NOW is a multi-issue, multi-strategy feminist organization that takes a holistic approach to women’s rights. Virginia NOW, our chapters within Virginia, and the Virginia NOW Political Action Committee (PAC) work together for feminist goals through action, advocacy, and political and cultural change. For the 2020 Virginia state legislative session, we advocated for six issues that are priorities for women's advancement and equality.
Status of Our 2020 legislative priorities:
After years of attempts under a Republican-controlled legislature, the Democratic majority made Virginia the 38th and final state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. This was one of NOW's main priorities because it is the foundation for progress on numerous issues. The Virginia Senate voted 28-12 and the House of Delegates voted 59-41 to approve the ERA. Under the U.S. Constitution, amendments become law when they're ratified by at least three-fourths of U.S. state legislatures — or 38 out of 50. However, the ERA's original deadline for ratification expired in the 1980s, putting its future on uncertain legal ground. The fight for ratification is being conducted at the national level – in the courts and Congress - to enshrine the ERA in the United States Constitution, guaranteeing equality under the law for women and girls.
A potentially life-saving "red flag" law (also called Extreme Risk Protective Order or ERPO) was passed. This law temporarily prevents someone in crisis from possessing or purchasing firearms or ammunition. This gun-safety measure is of particular concern to women. Recent data from the Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner indicates that 64% of all intimate partner homicide victims were killed with a firearm- and a domestic violence victim is five times more likely to be killed when an abuser has access to a gun. Clearly, for the millions of American women and children affected by domestic violence every year, guns in the hands of domestic abusers are a lethal threat. Gun safety and gun violence prevention is therefore a KEY issue for women’s safety; red-flag laws and Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPO) are a response that can make a difference. ERPO was one of seven gun-safety measures advocated by Gov. Ralph Northam that passed the legislature after years of such bills being quashed by Republican majorities: others are limiting handgun purchases to one per month and establishing universal background checks for firearm sales. An eighth part of Northam’s package — a ban on assault weapons — cleared the House but did not pass the Senate, largely due to the unwillingness of some Democrats to take bold steps.
One of Virginia NOW's top priorities is ensuring survivors of rape and sexual assault get the services they need, especially timely testing of rape kits. This session, landmark bills were passed with bipartisan support to protect and assist survivors, including expanded forensic nursing services (to administer rape kits and collect data and evidence for prosecution) and reimbursement options for nurses and survivors. Perhaps the most important of these bills is one that ensures all licensed hospitals provide forensic exams for survivors or transfer services to a hospital that provides these services.(Currently, fewer than 200 of our nearly 100,000 registered nurses are credentialed as Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners and only 16 of 122 licensed hospitals provide sexual assault forensic examinations.) These measures to provide more accessible services for rape survivors will be introduced over the next few years and must be funded.
The politically motivated anti-abortion and anti-choice legislation pushed by the Republican majority was upended in this session with passage of the Reproductive Health Protection Act (RHPA). This major victory, championed by our partners NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia and the other members of the Pro-Choice Coalition, removes political interference between a patient and their doctor and eliminates medically unnecessary, burdensome requirements for a patient seeking a legal abortion including:
- a forced, medically unnecessary ultrasound,
- the 24-hour mandatory delay, which often stretches for far longer,
- biased counseling that attempts to question a woman’s judgment,
- the infamous Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) law, intended to close clinics, and
- blocking qualified Advanced Practice Clinicians (APC) from providing abortion care early in pregnancy, despite their rigorous training and extensive experience.
The legislature passed the Virginia Values Act, which extends sweeping anti-discrimination protections to LGBTQ people. The legislation not only adds sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in housing, employment and public accommodations, it also establishes a new framework for people who feel they’ve been discriminated against to take legal action. Those causes of action would also apply to discrimination based on race, age, sex, religion, pregnancy, veteran status, and other categories. The bill also enables the attorney general’s office to pursue civil action against anyone “engaged in a pattern or practice of resistance” to the civil rights spelled out in the law. Virginia has been lauded as being the first southern state to pass such sweeping anti-discrimination legislation.
The rapid spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19 demonstrate the necessity of paid medical and family leave. The most vulnerable families are at risk. In one estimate, about 1.2 million Virginia private sector workers have no paid sick leave. Democratic state lawmakers advanced but ultimately failed to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act to mandate paid sick days, which is especially critical for low-wage workers such as restaurant employees and housekeepers. The bill that failed would have required employers with 15 or more workers to allow employees to earn paid sick days. After passing House and Senate, the state Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee did not take up a final version, effectively killing the proposal. The chair of that committee, Sen. Janet Howell of Reston, reportedly said that the committee had “serious concerns about the fiscal impact” of the bill. According to the Campaign for a Family Friendly Economy, just 44.7% of working adults in Virginia are eligible for and able to afford to take unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
Also key to family well-being and care, the General Assembly voted to raise the minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2023; the state currently requires the federal minimum of $7.25. The legislature also approved limited collective bargaining for public employees, provided their local governments voted to allow it.