For more than 25 years, Betty Folliard has pushed Minnesota to adopt the equal rights amendment

A woman speaks with a man in a suit
Former state representative and ERA Minnesota founder Betty Folliard speaks with public affairs consultant Buck Humphrey outside the Senate chambers at the State Capitol in St. Paul on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

A few days before a crucial vote on equal rights amendment legislation, former DFL state representative Betty Folliard was out and about at the Capitol. 

She and her fellow ERA Minnesota volunteers stood near the Senate Chamber’s entrance carrying ERA signs. “Yes on ERA!” and “ERA for Mother’s Day.” 

The group, dressed in green and white, the ERA colors, greeted legislators as they entered the chamber.

“It’s to show solidarity with our legislators who support the equal rights amendment and have every intention of passing it this year,” said the 72-year-old former House member. “It's a little boost in the arm. And we'll be here until it's done.”

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The proposed legislation, if passed, would put forth a ballot measure in 2026 to Minnesota voters on whether to include an equal rights amendment in the state Constitution. However, the vote on the legislation was delayed Monday night as legislators engaged in prolonged debates over other bills.

Folliard has had her eyes on the ERA prize since she began serving in the House in 1997. She’s been advocating for equal rights for women before she founded ERA Minnesota in 2014, or about 11 years after she left the House. 

She has worked behind the scenes, organizing members of ERA Minnesota, talking to legislators and scouring Google News for ERA stories. State Rep. Kaohly Her, the chief author of the equal rights amendment, has seen Folliard on the job.  

“Betty has worked tirelessly, tirelessly on this work for decades. And so I have been so honored to get to do this work with her as somebody who has seen the evolution of the fight for equal rights,” Her said.

“That spirit of ‘it doesn't matter how long it's going to take’ [means] that she's going to keep going at it,” she added.  

A close-up of a person wearing a pin
ERA Minnesota founder Betty Folliard shows off her lapel pin featuring the quote “Failure is impossible” by Susan B. Anthony at the State Capitol in St. Paul.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The language of the proposed amendment reads “the state shall not discriminate against any person in intent or effect on account of race, color, national origin, ancestry, disability or sex.” It also covers pregnancy, reproductive freedom, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.

Folliard called it an equality clause that should be codified in the state Constitution.

Opponents of the bill have been running ads against it. Some critics such as Renee Carlson, general counsel with True North Legal, testified in the House Rules and Legislative Administration Committee hearing last week.

“Among other concerns, this so-called equal rights amendment displaces and erases women,” Carlson said. The inclusion of the words sex, gender identity, and gender expression will undermine women's equality, she added. 

“Any distinction based on sex will now get the highest level of judicial scrutiny, making it impossible for many common sense distinctions in the law that benefit women to survive,” Carlson said.

Folliard countered, “That’s a red herring because it doesn’t take away any existing rights.”

The Minnesota Constitution was adopted in 1857 and the following year Minnesota became a state. The document has only had a few tweaks since it was established, she said.

“Who was a citizen at that time? Not a lot of people,” she said. “And there were a whole lot of people being left behind the door.”

Folliard cited disparities in the state’s education and health care systems as well as between classes and racial groups. According to the CDC, nationally African American women are three times more likely to die than white women during childbirth. In Minnesota, Black women are 2.3 times more likely to die of pregnancy — or childbirth-related causes — than white women. 

“We think of ourselves as being so exceptional, Minnesota is so exceptional, but we are unexceptional when it comes to equality,” she said. 

“The equal rights amendment is the umbrella over all the issues that are thwarting people's progress, and achieving the American dream here,” Folliard said. The ERA, she added, gets to the heart of discrimination.

“We need the equal rights amendment to lift all boats and erase the disparities,” she said.

Folliard was born the fifth of six children to Henry Thomas James and Vienna Lewis James in Madison, Wisc. When she was three, the family moved to Chicago where her father attended the University of Chicago to get his PhD in education. Four years later, the James family headed out to California in a blue and white Plymouth station wagon. Her father became an assistant professor in education at Stanford University. Eventually, he became Dean of Education. 

While attending Stanford she studied drama and graduated in 1975. In her senior year, she landed a role in a musical “Once Upon a Mattress” that won Best College Musical. The award was a three-and-a-half month USO tour through Asia.

She later met a very important person in New York City. 

“There I met my first husband [entrepreneur Kieran Folliard], and cast my knickers to the wind and married him and moved off to Ireland for seven and a half years.” 

Folliard had three children in Ireland. She said it was an unstable time for the country known as “The Troubles.”

“It was a time when Ireland was one of the two poorest countries in the EU,” she said. “What I took away from there [was] that the most important thing in life are the people in your life and the community in your life.” 

While there, the family was covered by national health care. She received prenatal and postnatal care as well as multiple days in the hospital, she said. The experience imbued her advocacy for the ERA today. Health care should be a human right, she said.

“We have the capacity to take care of people, why are we putting all these layers between people in care? And why are we letting discrimination in this state and this country get in the way of care? What's wrong with that picture?” Folliard said.

Folliard filed for divorce from Kieran in 1994. In 1997 she married Don Drapeau.

One way to break through what she called noise is to recognize the full humanity of people “and start to put that [the ERA amendment] into our governance processes,” she said.

Folliard described what it would be like for her if the proposed amendment passes.

“I will feel like I’ve just woken up from a very long illness because I’ve worked so hard for so long on this,” she said. “I have a few hours of my life back is what it’ll feel like and I will feel very very good for Minnesota.”

The House will try again to vote on the ERA before the session ends on May 20.

The hallway leading to the Minnesota Senate chambers
Former state representative and ERA Minnesota founder Betty Folliard campaigns outside the Senate chambers at the State Capitol.
Ben Hovland | MPR News