Boston — Women's rights activists appear to be losing the battle to strengthen their cause through the US Constitution. With the June 30, 1982, ratification deadline now but 14 months away, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) still needs the approval of three more states -- as it has for the past four years.
Backers of the measure, however, have no intention of quitting -- but they readily concede prospects for progress at current state legislative sessions are slim at best.
Instead of making a big push now, ERA America, the National Organization for Women (NOW), and other groups in the forefront of the drive for the constitutional amendment are readying for next year's legislative sittings. They hope that if the necessary approval of the federal amendment is not gained, they can at least make headway against sex bias through local laws.
"Our job is conveying to the public the urgency of gaining ratification before the deadline," explains Eleanor Smeal, the organization's president. (The original deadline for ratification was extended in 1979 for three years.) What is needed, Mrs. Smeal contends, is a nationwide campaign, not merely a drive in those states where approval is needed.
June 30 rallies are being planned in as many states as possible to help spark a year-long ratification drive. Should ERA fail to make it, anti-sex-discrimination laws in at least some states could be in jeopardy in the years ahead, Mrs. Smeal warns.
The NOW executive board Jan. 25 voted to retain ERA as its top priority and accelerate efforts to gain its passage.
Women's rights leaders are counting heavily on a backlash from those affected or threatened by cutbacks in social-service and human-rights programs to give new thrust to the ERA.
"Already there is a surge of new support," asserts Billie Bobbitt, who heads the coalition promoting ERA ratification in Florida. The retired Air Force colonel from Cocoa Beach says that she and her colleagues are within a few votes of the support needed for approval of the amendment.
"We will persist and prevail," she pledges, noting that two years ago the Florida House approved ratification but the measure failed narrowly in the Senate.
An ERA proposal has been filed for consideration at the current lawmaking session, but Colonel Bobbitt and her associates are concentrating their efforts instead on building needed support for next year.
Regardless of what happens to the ERA, at least one Florida city will protect equality of the sexes through a new municipal ordinance. The measure, passed unanimously in January by the Miami Beach city commission, provides a $500 fine or 14-day jail sentence for violators. Separation according to sex is permitted , however, at religious services and in use of restroom facilities.
The Miami Beach ordinance was spurred at least in part by a concern over loss of convention business, which has been the bulwark of the city's economy. Some organizations have boycotted states like Florida and Illinois because of their failure to ratify the ERA.
Sixteen states also have equal rights sections within their own constitutions , including Illinois, Utah, and Virginia -- three of the 15 states which have not ratified the US constitutional amendment. These state provisions are generally viewed by federal ERA advocates as none too ineffective.
Should the federal constitutional change fail to gain approval in the required 38 states by the middle of next year, women's rights groups seem likely to focus on passage of more state ERAs and legislation implementing such provisions.
While reluctant to discuss strategy for building state lawmaker support for ratification of the pending constitutional amendment, Suone Cotner, executive director of ERA America, based in Washington, D.C., explains that much of the effort is on lobbying legislators in their home districts.
"They are often too busy to give proper consideration to the amendment when the legislature is in session, and they are lobbied from all directions on many proposals," Ms. Cotner holds. She and other ERA boosters are convinced there is little, if any, likelihood a second time extension for gaining additional state ratifications would be granted by Congress.
Besides Florida, major ERA ratification pushes can be expected in at least six other states -- Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Virginia -- where there is considerable legislative support.
In Illinois -- home state of Phyllis Schlafly, the nation's most outspoken ERA foe -- ratification requires three-fifths approval in legislative chambers. In 1978, the last time the proposal came before the House, it fell but two votes short of the 107 then needed. Two years earlier a similar move lost by seven votes. In each instance, however, a majority of the lawmakers supported the ERA.
Illinois is the only Northern state that has not ratified the amendment. The most recent approval came in neighboring Indiana in 1977.
Between March 1972 and then, 34 other states approved the equal rights measure, although three -- Idaho, Nebraska, and Tennessee -- later voted to rescind their approval. The federal Constitution makes no provision for a state to cancel its action once having approved an amendment, but foes of the ERA are expected to challenge the validity of ratification anyhow, should backers of the measure gain the approval of the three additional states in the next 14 months.
Besides those mentioned earlier, states where major ratification moves can be expected next year are Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, South Carolina, and Utah. Previous efforts for approval have fallen far short in all of them.
NOW is battling a federal court suit in Idaho challenging the constitutionality of the three-year extension for ratification voted by Congress in 1979. A victory for the plaintiffs would block any possibility of an ERA victory next year.
Those favoring the amen dment would then have to begin all over again, getting a measure through Congress and gaining approval of 38 states.