Prodded by signs of hope from Iowa to California, the campaign for a national Equal Rights Amendment is stirring from a decade of slumber, and the right combination of Election Day victories could set off a new 10-year push for ratification.
The hopeful signs include a likely win for a state ERA referendum in once-resistant Iowa, a surge in female candidacies at all levels ofgovernment, and the prospect that a Democrat sympathetic to the ERA will win the presidency.
But the most intriguing indicator may be signs of ideological retreat among the ERA's staunchest opponents on the Christian Right. The recession has forced them to acknowledge an accelerating movement of women into the work force,and some now sprinkle their rhetoric with such feminist buzzwords as "choice" and "equal opportunity," while staking out more conciliatory positions on a host of issues once deemed radical.
"By the mid '80s, I think the actual feminist movement became of little or no concern to the conservative Christian movement," said Martin Mawyer of Forest, Va., president of the Christian Action Network and former editor of the Moral Majority newsletter.
"I think that once we began to dismiss the radical voices [of feminism], it became crystal clear that this was a legitimate goal and should be respected for the women of America. . . . I think the economy drives the goals of feminism to become reality."
Mr. Mawyer still opposes the ERA, saying it is demeaning to women in its assumption that their rights aren't guaranteed by the Constitution. But he speaks more often these days of opportunities for working women and breaks tradition altogether saying women should be allowed to serve voluntarily in combat units of the armed forces.
Some feminists say they're not surprised.
"They have assimilated so much of the feminist platform that there's very little left that they're opposed to," said Susan Faludi, author of the best-selling book, "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women." "It shows the degree to which the feminist agenda has already been tacitly accepted as part of the basic agenda."
Eleanor Smeal, a leader of the ERA fight in the 1970s and president of the Fund for the Feminist Majority, said: "They can read the polling as well as we can, and the polls show that both men and women believe in equal rights for women. They are very clever, so they adapt their arguments."
But in a year in which an unprecedented number of women are running for seats in Congress and state legislatures across the country, feminists have also learned the value of more moderate rhetoric. Some campaign appeals have adopted seemingly conservative themes that even the vice president's wife, Marilyn Quayle, would be comfortable with.
"There's this strange sort of meeting in the middle that's going on on both sides," Ms. Faludi said.
In a recent speech on behalf of female senatorial candidates in California, for instance, National Organization for Women President Patricia Ireland spoke of women's "special qualities," saying that the same characteristics that make them good nurses and teachers would make them good members of Congress.
That message's suggestion of innate gender differences makes some feminists uneasy. But its suggestion of fresh qualifications has played well in a year of strong anti-incumbent feelings, and women are expected to make strong gains in the Senate and House of Representatives.
More important may be gains in state legislatures, where women's share of the seats is likely to move from 17 percent to more than 20 percent. Women held only a 10 percent share in 1982, when the last ERA effort gasped to the finish line only three states and a handful of legislative votes short of ratification.
This rising electoral power and the merging rhetoric on feminist issues mean that the public is in a far more receptive mood than it used to be to ERA, backers say. And that means it may be time to resume the battle for the support of two-thirds of Congress and at least 38 state legislatures.
"It may well be we've accomplished enough now to bring the ERA through the states," said NOW's executive vice president, Kim Gandy.
"I think the election of a Democratic president could help, depending on whether that president was particularly determined to help pass it. . . . And certainly passage in Iowa would be a shot in the arm to those who are ready to gear it up right now."
"If the presidency remains hostile, we would probably wait another four years," Ms. Smeal said. "But if it doesn't, the time would probably be right."
Those viewing Iowa as an indicator of national sentiment have been buoyed by opinion polls. The latest, released last week, showed 61 percent support and only 27 percent opposition among voters who 12 years ago defeated a state ERA by a 55-45 margin.