It is days until members of the Virginia General Assembly will converge at the state capitol to welcome the new class of 2020. With signs held high and fire in our guts, women of differing ages, colors, religions and sexual orientation will be there to greet them as we march in solidarity for one common cause – to ensure that Virginia is the 38th state and final state needed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
On the threshold of change, what will the ERA’s passage mean for women of color?
I am an African American, college-educated, wife and mother of two great children. I became involved with the ERA through my sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, which collaborated with the VAratifyERA campaign. Service is a family tradition, and my husband and I instill it in our children. ERA advocacy is the latest chapter. This year our 16-year-old daughter, Kamryn, had the opportunity to be directly involved with VAratifyERA’s #iScreamforEquality get-out-the-vote drive. Kam spent time with the national organization Equal Means Equal in Suffolk to advocate for the ERA in our gerrymandered 76th House District, then represented by an anti-equality delegate. I listened to her conversations about the election, national politics and normal teenager issues and wondered what an African American girl who soon will be transitioning to college thinks the ERA will change. To get her youthful perspective, we sat down together post-election.
Robin: How do you feel about the ERA? Do you believe it will help women of color?
Kamryn: The ERA is going to bring women to the next level. It will help everyone, even those who don’t support it. Women have really leveled up, but we need the assurance that we can stay there by having a constitutional amendment that protects our rights. African American women have been discriminated against since slavery – not being paid a fair wage or valued for our academic skills, we always had to be honored within the black community. Fast forward to present day. We are winning in every field imaginable but still not being paid fairly compared to white men or women doing the same job. Equal pay laws brought on by the ERA could change that.
Robin: How did you feel about advocating for equality during the recent campaign?
Kamryn: It was very interesting to see how many people had no knowledge about the ERA. It felt good to know I helped to educate the community and some of my friends, too. I passed out flyers and got a chance to talk to people. The ERA button on my jacket sparked conversations. A bonus was that some of our winning voting precincts were driven by the ERA.
Robin: Virginia soon will have its first female Speaker of the House and the first female African American Majority Leader and Senate President Pro-Tempore in 400 years. Do you feel like certain events have led women to run for office? How do you see that influencing Black America?
Kamryn: The #MeToo Movement, the Kavanaugh hearings and the bad behavior of powerful men have led women to stand up and say, “We can take part in controlling our own destiny and help other people along the way.” I am proud to belong to a circle of strong women, and I’m glad that more women who look like me are taking the call to lead. They are role models. Also, social media is big with my generation, and we don’t really see people’s actions that make change. We just hear them talk about it. This is a revolution. If we’re doing this much now, imagine what we can do 10, 20 or even 100 years from now.
Robin: Many rap lyrics are degrading, perpetuating sexual assault, body shaming and gender slurs. If we could have a discussion about respect for women and why men need to support the ERA, do you think that your peers would be interested?
Kamryn: Everybody loves music mom, and you know I need it for my soul. Rap can be bad, but we don’t always pay attention to the words. However, it is misogynistic. Maybe music or videos could be used with interactive activities to start a discussion about the ERA and why not standing up for equality can diminish a woman’s character and worth. Respect can go a long way on both sides. We’ll all be graduating soon and going into a different world. We need to know what rights we have as women and how to protect ourselves. Also, the more informed guys are, I think they will be more understanding of the issues that women face.
Robin: Do you think there is a double standard when it comes to women of color reporting issues of discrimination and bias?
Kamryn: The ERA is about WOMEN. However, there may be times when black women may not report an incident because of the underlying fear that they may be silenced or passed over. The truth is all women will be in a better position to advocate for themselves legally with the ERA rather than without.
Robin: Do you have any thoughts about how you may remain engaged with the ERA as it shifts to the national level?
Kamryn: I plan to continue to support the ERA. There is still so much I need to learn, and I really admire people like Ms. Kamala Lopez and others I met through VAratifyERA. I’ll spread the word in groups I’m involved in like the Delta GEMS, my Girl Scout troop, church and sports teams. Moving forward, I challenge my peers to be more aware of their actions – in public, on social media. We must pay attention to the political climate and what’s happening on the local level because it dictates what happens on the federal. Get involved in a cause that has a positive impact. The ERA is a great place to start. It’s never too late to take a part in women’s equality. The timing is perfect, and Virginia will be the 38th state to ratify.
Robin Jenkins Whitley is an ERA Liaison for the Suffolk Alumnae Chapter, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
Kamryn N. Whitley is an ERA supporter and an honor student at Lakeland High School, Suffolk, VA.