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Families of Delaware women lawmakers who ratified the federal ERA Amendment share memories

House Democratic Caucus
Current Delaware lawmakers pose with pictures of women lawmakers who voted for the federal ERA Amendment

Delaware is the 25th state to add an state Equal Rights Amendment to its Constitution.

Before this month’s final state ERA votes by the House and Senate, family members of women serving in the legislature when it ratified the federal ERA shared their memories.

A federal Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced in 1923, the 75th anniversary of the 1848 Womans’ Rights Convention.

A version of it was introduced in every Congress until it passed both chambers of Congress in 1972 and went to the states for ratification.

By that time, the few women in the Delaware General Assembly were tough, educated and able get things done. And they helped Delaware become the third state to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment in 1972.

All of them have since passed away, but were remembered by their children and grandchildren.

Natalia Pane recalls her grandmother - former State Rep. Clarice Heckert.

“She would walked up to you, very tall, reached out her hand, given you a firm handshake and said 'Hi, I am Clarice Heckert, what is your name,'" she said. "That is how she entered almost every interaction. She was proud, she enjoyed talking with people about who they were, their ideas and she would inevitably get to how we could make the world a better place.”

Credit Sarah Mueller / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Natalia Pane looks through a scrapbook kept by her grandmother - former State Rep. Clarice Heckert.

State Sen. Louise Connor was the federal ERA’s prime sponsor in Delaware. Her son Herb said his mother noticed a lot of the state’s business occurred during breaks in session and caucus meetings. She soon discovered men were conducting business in the bathroom and she could overhear their discussions from the ladies restroom.

Her son said she told the story to family members with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.

“'There’s more than one way to work for women’s rights,'" he said.

Henrietta Johnson was the first African American woman to serve in the General Assembly, from 1970 to 1978. Her son Johnny said growing up in the South made her passionate about women’s rights.

Johnny said as a child, Johnson saw women denied the rights men had. Even though she was a registered nurse, as a black woman, she was restricted to cleaning houses. He said as a state representative, Johnson saw her role as opening doors for others, including more opportunities for women.

“She always felt a woman should be in the same place that a man was as far as employment, as far as how much money they’re supposed to make, the respect they’re supposed to have," he said. "And that’s what she fought for, a woman to be able to have that. It didn’t have to be a woman of color, just as long as it was a woman.”

Credit Sarah Mueller / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Herb Connor showing a picture of his nieces and grandnieces at the headstone of Susan B. Anthony holding a picture of his mother, her daughter and her two granddaughters at a Save the ERA Rally.

Johnson left the General Assembly before a state ERA Amendment was introduced by now State Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride in 1984. It would be up to women succeeding Johnson, such as State Sens. Karen Peterson and Stephanie Hansen and House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, to work for a state ERA Amendment in the years leading up to this week’s passage.

Some of the women who cast votes for the federal ERA Amendment saw it less as an existential struggle for civil rights than as simply rights women should already have.

Former State Rep. Margaret Manning, who served from 1956 to 1974, was at times the only woman in the General Assembly. Her son Bill said she wouldn’t have understand the fuss over women having the same rights as men.

“It didn’t occur to her that she was the victim of discrimination," he said. "And because she didn’t have that sense, she wasn’t an activist. But if you asked her the question ‘Should women have this right?’ She just took it for granted.”

State Rep. Clarice Heckert’s granddaughter Natalia Pane said her family reviewed hundreds of letters and none mention the ERA. But her letters do mention raising money for Planned Parenthood.

Pane said she wouldn’t be completely honest about her grandmother’s record and legacy though without mentioning her opposition to busing children to desegregate schools.

“I think it must have been pretty painful for her," she said. "In fact, in the scrapbook, one of things I think is fascinating is on the page where she talks about her retirement; there are only two things. Heckert, my grandmother, segregation was not deliberate and the very next article right next to it is Rep. Heckert announces retirement from politics.”

A renewed push for a state Equal Rights Amendment started in 2016 with now retired State Sen. Karen Peterson leading the way. But she was unable to get it through the Senate. When she retired, House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst took up the cause.

To change the state constitution, amendments must pass both chambers in two consecutive sessions.

The House passed the state ERA for the second time last week.

It cleared the Senate for the final time Wednesday prompting this elated and emotional reaction from Longhurst.

“To say we have equal rights in the state of Delaware today, at this moment, going forward," she said. "Doesn’t have to be signed into law, it is law.”

Credit Sarah Mueller / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst hugs supporters after the state ERA takes effect.

That result was far from certain. A state ERA Amendment passed the House last year, but initially failed in the Senate along party lines. But the tide turned when state Sens. Democrat Stephanie Hansen and Republican Anthony Delcollo reached a compromise last year that makes the intent of the amendment clear - addressing concerns some had about its possible impact on abortion, private sector wages and services only offered to one sex.

That got it through the Senate last year -- and set up this year’s final successful votes in each chamber.

There’s also been a renewed push to finish the work started by the women in the General Assembly in 1972 - ratifying the federal Equal Rights Amendment. By its extended 1982 deadline, it got 35 of the 38 states needed to change the U.S. Constitution. But Nevada ratified the ERA in 2017 and Illinois followed suit in 2018. Virginia could become the 38th state this month. If that happens, a legal showdown could follow.

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