Women's rights amendment: the days dwindle

With the time clock ticking away, supporters are launching a massive rescue effort for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which must win over three more states or else die in exactly one year.

This may be "the last time this century" for guaranteeing women's rights, said Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) on June 30. "The odds are against us," she conceded as she announced a "countdown" campaign to sign up volunteers and raise $15 million for the last year.

The controversial proposed amendment to the US Constitution recently has hit on hard times. Written 58 years ago and passed by Congress in 1972, it states, "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

Pollsters report that most Americans favor the ERA. Two-thirds of the states have ratified it. But for the past four years not one new state has been added to the list, which must reach 38 (three-fourths of the states) to enact the federal amendment.

In fact, the ERA seems to be going backwards. Three states have voted to rescind their support, and President Reagan actively opposes the ERA.

A congressional extension giving supporters an additional two years to win the required 38 states expires June 30, 1982.

Ironically, the pro-ERA forces are pinning some of their hopes on their most powerful opponent: Mr. Reagan. "People never saw the opposition before," said NOW leader Smeal. She said that the Reagan election has brought thousands of new members and more donations to NOW. The organization reports that new members are joining at the rate of 9,000 per month compared with 3,500 before the election. She charged that since the new administration took office, women's rights are "statute by statute going backwards."

With the help of celebrities, including actor Alan Alda and former First Lady Betty Ford, the NOW campaign staged more than 100 events around the nation to mark the beginning of the last year for the ERA.

Foremost ERA opponent Phyllis Schlafly, meanwhile, called an early morning press conference to celebrate what she sees as the certain end of the amendment. A smiling and buoyant Mrs. Schlafly proclaimed the ERA a lost cause, a "cadaver that we have to keep pushing back into the coffin."

She credited the "fact that we showed ERA will take rights away from women" for her success so far. Schlafly, who founded the organization Stop ERA in 1972 , added that the debate over drafting women also helped her side. Polls showing ERA support have been wrong, she said.

The Illinois lawyer and conservative activist said that while she thinks men and women are equal, "I support laws that say a husband must support his wife. When you look at the fabric of family law, women are very well treated, very preferentially treated."

Responding to Schlafly's prediction on the ERA, actor Alan Alda said, "It's not a lost cause because it's right."

Smeal promised a hard-hitting campaign, targeting six states: Illinois, North Carolina, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Virginia. The average woman earns only 59- cents for each dollar earned by her male counterpart, she said, and "someone profits."

As the last 12 months open on the ERA, both sides continue to battle over the same ground, and the proponents hold the lowest position. "There is no question that if they want this, the people are going to have to work as never before," said Smeal. Without ERA, she said, it will take 200 years for women to gain equality under the laws.

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