ERA forces still on offensive, but battle seems all but lost
The end of an era -- the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) era - appears to be fast approaching.
Women's rights activists, however, have no intention of quitting. They say their efforts to get three more states to ratify the measure as part of the US Constitution are not a lost cause. This despite the fact that the June 30 deadline now is little more than 31/2 months away and the opposition remains tenacious.
Undiscouraged by legislative setbacks in Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Virginia within the past few weeks, those in the forefront of the ERA drive are counting heavily on a victory in Florida in the coming weeks. This, supporters say, would give the ratification movement ''needed momentum.''
Although 35 states have ratified the constitutional amendment since its passage by Congress a decade ago, no such action has come since 1977 when Indiana joined the ranks. Thirty-eight states must ratify the amendment before it bcomes part of the Constitution.
Even if three more states should ratify the equal rights measure by the end of June, it might not be enough: Lawmakers in three states - Idaho, Nebraska, and Tennessee - have voted to rescind approval.
Last December, a federal district court judge in Idaho ruled that states could withdraw their ERA support. This action has been stayed, however, by the US Supreme Court, pending its consideration of the matter.
Also in dispute is whether Congress overstepped its constitutional bounds in 1979, by granting a three-year extension to the normal seven-year ratification period.
Without a victory in Florida, leaders of various groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW), ERA America, and the League of Women Voters concede prospects for beating the June deadline are slim.
While confident the Florida House will approve the measure, as it has twice in past years, backers of the amendment like Lois Harrison, a Florida resident and member of the National League of Women Voters board, are less sure of what the state Senate outcome will be.''I think we may be two votes short,'' she says , explaining that efforts to win the needed additional support are continuing.
Meanwhile, ERA opponents are pressing to hold the line. Phyllis Schlafly, the amendment's most outspoken foe, has made two trips to the state this year from her Stop ERA headquarters in Alton, Ill.
She and her supporters, including Patricia Herrell, chairman of Florida Stop ERA, hold that ''it is a waste of time'' for the Legislature. ''The people here don't want it,'' Mrs. Herrell argues, noting that a ballot proposal for an equal rights amendment to the state constitution was rejected in 1978.
ERA boosters cite Florida polls, which show strong support for the measure. ''Our campaign is gaining in size and resources,'' says Eleanor Smeal, president of NOW, who is helping spearhead the drive to make Florida the 36th state to ratify the amendment.
''We'll be very active in Illinois, too,'' she pledges, noting that in the past the stumbling block to ratification there has not been gaining majority support in both legislative chambers but a three-fifths requirement.
Getting rid of this restrictive rule is the target, according to Kathleen Currie of ERA America, the Washington, D.C.-based coalition dedicated to gaining passage of what would be the 27th Amendment.
''It took 75 years to get women's suffrage,'' she asserts in making it clear that should the ratification drive fall short of the required 38 states, the drive ''to guarantee women equality of opportunity will go on.''
Already being discussed in pro-ERA circles is reintroducing the amendment in Congress and lending both physical and financial support to state legislative candidates who support their cause.
''We have learned a lot over the past 10 years,'' asserts Ms. Currie, who says a major thrust of the feminist movement in the coming years will be toward gaining passage of state antidiscrimination laws.
She, like Ms. Smeal, is concerned that in the absence of an ERA, anti-sex-discrimination laws may be in jeopardy.
The pending constitutional amendment specifies that ''equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.''
Mrs. Schlafly, who says she is ''very happy it is not going to pass,'' holds that ''it is not needed'' and warns it will mean ''drafting women into the armed forces.''
''Nobody wants to give more power to the federal government and the courts and that is what this would do,'' she asserts.
In her crusade against the ERA, she has gone not only to Florida but most of the other states where ratification attempts were under way, to help rally opposition.
Besides Florida and Illinois, ERA boosters have targeted North Carolina for a major effort this spring. The lawmaking session there begins on June 1, just days before the deadline for the amendment to gain approval of not less than three-fourths of the 50 states.
Also being considered is another attempt at ratification in the Oklahoma Legislature, whose Senate rejected it in January.
The remaining states among the 15 which have not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment are in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missippi, Nevada, South Carolina, and Utah.
Strong opposition from within the Mormon Church has made it difficult to build legislator support for the amendment in several of these states. And in the Deep South resistance from conservative forces has made the going especially rough.
Prospects for ERA approval in Mississippi are considered particularly bleak since this is one of only two states which, no more than 61 years after the women's suffrage constitutional amendment went on the books, has failed to ratify it. The other one is Delaware, which in 1972 was one of the early states on the ERA bandwagon.