After 18 years, an ERA revival

February 15, 2000|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- And you thought the Equal Rights Amendment was dead. We all did. The amendment flat-lined in 1982, just three states short of the 38 needed for ratification. I even wrote an obit.

Back then, feminists shifted their sights to politics, saying if we can't change the state legislators' minds, we'll change their faces. A baby girl born in 1982 will cast her first vote in 2000 without being equal under the law.

But what's this I hear out of Missouri? Can it be the faint sound of a pulse? Is it possible that the ERA wasn't truly dead but, rather, in a cryogenic state?

Sometime this month in Jefferson City, the amendment is going to the floor of the House for a vote. And if it passes both the Missouri House and the tougher venue, the Senate, it will be the first ratification victory in 18 years.

The Missouri vote is the cutting edge of the "three-state strategy." This is a long-shot plan to bring the amendment back to life by getting it passed in three more state legislatures.

This strategy is an unexpected inheritance from James Madison. Back in 1789, the Founding Father proposed an amendment that would force Congress to take a roll-call vote whenever it approved a pay raise. The amendment languished in a state of suspended animation for 203 years. Finally, in 1992, it was ratified -- after -- Congress agreed to accept the original 18th-century state votes in the 20th-century tally.

Beating the deadline

Of course the Madison amendment didn't have a time limit. None of the amendments did until Prohibition. Indeed, suffrage never would have passed with a 10-year deadline. But the ERA did have one.

Nevertheless, in 1995, three young women law students saw the Madison amendment as a way to resurrect the ERA. If the pay-raise amendment could be resurrected after 203 years, why not the ERA after a mere 18? If Congress can do this for a Founding Father, why not do it for a Founding Mother?

Congress, it wrote, can legally repeal or extend a deadline at will. It can accept a running total. Apparently, the only thing it can't do is count a recision. So if the ERA gets three more states, Congress can declare the mission accomplished.

This brings us back to Missouri, where an energized group of women have taken up the challenge. They're cheerfully battling along the comeback trail.

A recent committee hearing on the bill looked like deja vu all over again. The old 1970s opponents, including the Eagle Forum, were back with their dire warnings.

But Shirley Breeze, who's heading up the state campaign says, "This time it's a different ballgame. A different mood in the country. The ERA is not as threatening as it was, but it's just as important."

The irony is that the old bugaboos raised by the anti-ERA crowd in the 1970s -- unisex toilets, gay marriages, women in combat -- are all happening anyway. Unisex toilets aren't just in Ally McBeal's office, and women were in combat in the Persian Gulf War.

In fact, Vermont, which rejected a state equal rights amendment, may be the first to recognize gay marriage.

Meanwhile, the Missouri women have learned from the earlier defeat. They've been working from the bottom up, district by district, building support.

They figure that this spring -- before term limits affect their legislative support -- is the best shot to become the first of the three states. Ms. Breeze is convinced that "if Missouri passes it, two other states will jump on the bandwagon." Bills have also been introduced in unratified states such as Illinois, Oklahoma and Virginia.

ERA energy

I wouldn't bet the mortgage on the three-state strategy holding up in court or Congress. But it is a jolt to those of us who get that old burned-out feeling every time the ERA is mentioned.

The original ERA campaign was one of the rare, unifying, big-ticket items on the feminist blackboard.

Even Jane Mansbridge, who wrote "Why We Lost the ERA," says that the 10-year struggle brought feminism home.

"It became a struggle which many women took as their own. The idea that `women are not in the Constitution' spoke to their daily understanding that they were `second-class citizens.' That's what the ERA struggle meant to them. It meant, damn it, we're not even in the Constitution.

"Even if the odds are against them," says Ms. Mansbridge about the Missouri women, "historic struggles aren't won by people saying, `Oh well, the odds are against us, we won't try.' Historic struggles are won by saying we'll try."

Think of it this way. Maybe the ERA isn't dead; it's just down and counting. Thirty-six, thirty-seven, thirty-eight.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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