The Equal Rights Amendment lost on the floor of the House of Representatives this week, as even its most ardent supporters expected. But the real test of the mettle of the ERA movement may come next November when the voters speak.
Hopes were dim for gaining the two-thirds majority needed when Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts surprised the House by putting the constitutional amendment to a vote under a speeded-up procedure, with only a day's notice and 40 minutes of debate.
The move infuriated Republicans. They complained that they were ambushed by a Democratic effort to embarrass opponents of the amendment, most of whom are Republicans. And while Speaker O'Neill later denied a political motive, supporters of the amendment are already talking about defeating at the polls those who voted 'no.' It did not escape attention that 109 Republicans and only 38 Democrats voted against the ERA.
The defeat ''says that the women of America have to go to the polls and work a lot harder,'' concluded Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro of New York, a Democrat. The message is also that voters ''should go out and elect Democrats,'' she adds.
Republicans ''will face the wrath of their constituents at the polls next year,'' said Judith Goldsmith, president of the National Organization of Women, one of the groups that had urged speedy consideration of the ERA. The vote, as she pointed out, came well before filing deadlines for the next congressional elections, giving groups such as hers plenty of time to plan strategies.
''I wouldn't want to be in the 109 Club,'' said O'Neill aide Christopher J. Matthews of the Republicans who voted against the amendment.
Despite the fact that the ERA failed to be ratified by the states earlier this year, polls have consistently found a high level of support for the amendment among both men and women. It is not yet proven that this one issue can defeat or elect congressional candidates. However, Democrats clearly see the advantage going for them. ''It's a potent issue that we will win,'' said a Democratic campaign strategist.
The vote on Tuesday, under an expedited process called ''suspension of the rules,'' gave the party a clear vote on the unadulterated ERA, which simply states that legal rights cannot be abridged on the basis of sex. Under a more open process, the ERA would almost certainly have been weighted down by exclusions for the military draft, women in combat, abortion rights, and veterans' preference.
''It's a pure partisan move by the Speaker of the House,'' said Rep. Dan Lungren (R) of California, who voted against the ERA, but who said he would have favored it with some revisions. Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner Jr. (R) of Wisconsin , leader of the opposition, said in an interview that he had no worries about his stand. ''I can explain that vote to voters back home very easily,'' he said, denouncing ''the cynical move on the part of the partisan Speaker of the House.''
The Wisconsin Republican said he has never been supported by ''the women's political caucus.'' As he spoke outside the House floor, an ERA supporter upbraided him for wearing a tie with the initials ''MCP'' (male chauvinist pig) to the House Judiciary Committee meeting that marked up the ERA. A member of the National Organization for Women gave him the tie, Mr. Sensenbrenner explained. ''It's surprising the lack of sense of humor on the part of some of the supporters of the ERA,'' he said.
Republicans who supported the ERA this week were no less angry at O'Neill, blaming him for its defeat and for inserting partisanship into the issue. ''They wanted to beat Republicans over the head who vote no,'' said Rep. Bobbi Fiedler (R) of California, who protested the procedure but voted for the amendment.
Some on Capitol Hill say that a different procedure might have brought a different result, and a few lawmakers said they voted against the amendment only because they objected to the process. But the consensus is that the ERA does not have the super-majority required.
''There's a lot of people in this country who just don't care about equal rights for women,'' said Representative Ferraro after the vote. She saw little point in bringing up the amendment again in this Congress. ''I think we've had our vote on the ERA.''