Why ERA could hinge on vote in Illinois

The Equal Rights Amendment controversy now centers on the Illinois State Capitol here, where a crucial battle in the eight-year-old campaign to ratify the ERA is beginning.

It is a battle that pits Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), against Phyllis Schlafly of Alton, Ill., founder of STOP ERA.

To date, 35 states have ratified the ERA. Five voted subsequently to rescind their ratification votes -- which may or may not be possible, but which won't much matter, anyway, unless at least three more states vote for ratifiction before the extended deadline of June 30, 1982. The 52-word amendment to the United States Constitution, approved by Congress in 1972, reads:

"1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States of by any state on account of sex.

"2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

"3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification."

NOW's Mrs. Smeal has taken up residence in Springfield to lead a massive lobbying effort. Behind NOW's ratification drive are more than 135 national organizations including the AFL-CIO, the United Automobile Workers, and the Republican and Democratic national committees.

NOW's objective is to use grass-roots pressure to win new support for ERA from among the 177 state representatives and 59 state senators in the Illinois Legislature. In previous votes, the legislators have come just short of the 60 percent majority needed for ratification.

NOW sees Illinois as key to the national ratification battle for a variety of reasons. It is the only northern industrial state that has not ratified ERA. At the same time, it is also a state with an important rural vote and close ties to the South.

Accordingly, NOW strategists reason that if they work out a formula for winning Illinois over, this can be applied in the South -- probably next in North Carolina and Florida.

Another reason for focusing on Illinois is that this is the home territory of Phyllis Schlafly. Mrs. Schlafly, who heads STOP ERA, describes the amendment as "a federal grab for power" which will do nothing to benefit women. Instead, she told the Monitor, "ERA will take away the preferential treatment of wives in our laws. It has absolutely nothing to do with pay scales, equal pay for equal work , or with promotions for women."

The Alton, Ill., mother of six says she is confident that the Illinois Legislature will again reject the ERA. "The so-called economic argument might go down well where people don't know what ERA is and haven't had any public discussion, as happened in the states which ratified ERA early on," Mrs. Schlafly contends. "But here in Illinois the fight has been going on for years and people know what the issues are."

For NOW activists, the key issues are not military service for young mothers or "unisex" rest rooms, but "the bread-and-butter issues" which they say are increasingly important because of mounting inflation and unemployment.

NOW's Chicago organizer, Mary Jane Collins, who has taken a year off from her job to work full-time for ERA, told the Monitor that economic hardship is "making it clear to everyone that the days when the family could live on one income are over."

As the "two-paycheck family" becomes the rule, she said, it is in everyone's interest to ensure that women are given equal pay rather than earning just 59 cents where a male would earn a dollar.

The counter-argument from Mrs. Schlafly's STOP ERA is that by its wording ERA affects only relations between women and federal or state governments, not between women and private employers.

But for ERA supporters, the constitutional amendment would be a symbol of the changing -- liberating -- attitude toward women. And, say the ERA volunteers, sex discrimination has become a multibillion-dollar expense hard-pressed Americans can no longer afford.

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