Momentum for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, a vestige of 1970s activism, is building in the Minnesota Legislature and across the U.S.

Two ERA bills will get a hearing Thursday in the House Government Operations Committee. One would ask voters to decide on Nov. 3, 2020, whether to add the ERA to the Minnesota Constitution. The other would request that Congress extend the deadline for ratification of a national ERA.

"We need to get this done," said Rep. Rena Moran, D-St. Paul, sponsor of the national ERA measure. "Having gender equity embedded in our … constitutions is still needed."

Both measures were introduced in the Legislature's 2018 session and went nowhere. Proponents hope that action in the House, now under Democrats' control, will create impetus in the Senate, where Republicans remain in charge.

Companion bills were introduced by Sens. Richard Cohen and Sandra Pappas, both St. Paul Democrats.

Some conservative groups say the ERA would create a right to abortion on demand and infringe on states' rights.

Meredith Campbell, public policy director at the Minnesota Family Council, said in a statement that equal protections already are included in state and federal laws.

"Efforts to revive the ERA aren't about women's rights," Campbell said, but would create "an unverifiable 'gender identity.' " That could stop the government from protecting bodily privacy rights in places like "domestic violence shelters and school locker rooms, mandating taxpayer funding for abortions, and threatening the status of churches and religious organizations," she said.

Next year would be a symbolic moment for Minnesota voters to have their say, said Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, D-New Brighton, sponsor of the state ERA bill. It will be the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which guarantees women the right to vote.

Twenty-four state constitutions include ERA amendments or language.

Last year, Kunesh-Podein said, requests for hearings were met by "a blank stare" from GOP committee chairs. But the climate has changed because of the prominence of the #MeToo movement and the 2018 election of a record number of women, she said.

The ERA states that "equality of rights" cannot be denied by federal or state governments "on account of sex."

It was first proposed in 1923 and was passed by the U.S. House in 1971 and the U.S. Senate the next year. Minnesota ratified it in 1973. The ERA fell short of ratification by the required 38 states — three-fourths of the total — by 1979, the first deadline, or by an extended 1982 cutoff date. By then, 35 states had approved it.

The issue was dormant for decades. Then Nevada ratified the ERA in 2017. Illinois followed in 2018. The Virginia Senate voted Jan. 15 to join them. In a setback for ERA proponents, a Virginia House subcommittee rejected the measure Tuesday, but a vote in a full committee is set. If the House there ultimately agrees, that would make 38 states.

A legal battle could then ensue over the deadlines' validity and whether the process would have to start again. Another wrinkle: Five states have withdrawn their support.

Democrats in Congress are preparing resolutions that would negate the deadlines.

ERA proponents note that a constitutional amendment limiting Congress' power to vote itself pay raises was certified in 1992. It was originally proposed in 1789.

ERA Minnesota, an organization founded in 2014, is working to build support. Its members participated in last Saturday's Women's March in St. Paul, and the group will host a Feb. 2 gathering in Minneapolis to raise awareness.

"Momentum has really ramped up," said Heather Allison, ERA Minnesota's president. She expects bipartisan backing in the Legislature.

Betty Folliard, a former DFL state representative and the group's founder, said its members helped lobby for ERA ratification in Illinois and are now pitching in on Virginia's effort.

Finally enacting the ERA is "unfinished business," she said. "Women can fight and die for this country and they still don't have equal rights."

Judy Keen • 612-673-4234