New York — Often, the sign of an effective documentary is its condemnation by both sides. Such is the case with ''Who Will Protect the Family?'' (PBS, check local listings for widely varying days and times) -- perhaps the most controversial PBS documentary since ''Death of a Princess.''
Already attacked by both pro- and anti-Equal Rights Amendment groups, ''Who Will Protect the Family?'' attempts to analyze the real issues involved in current ERA battles by taking a close look at two activist opponents in North Carolina. There, a series of losing battles were fought by proponents between 1979 and 1981.
Writer-producer Victoria Costello, together with writer-reporter Frances FitzGerald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, manage to make this carefully balanced film a thought-provoking hour for both sides by utilizing the camera to probe the attitudes of two women activists. Both are seemingly traditional middle-class wives and mothers, active in their communities. Both are ''born-again'' Christians.
On the surface they would seem to be natural allies, but because of certain ERA issues, they oppose each other's points of view with a kind of friendly vigor. Since, as in the case of many ERA opponents, both believe in some basic concepts such as equal pay for equal work, the conflict finds its focus in attitudes toward the family. It becomes a battle between working mothers and anti-working mothers, between those who believe the age-old concept of the family is outmoded and those who believe that same concept of family represents values to which our society must return.
Neither woman is totally effective in her defense of her own point of view, both say things that like-minded persons may find objectionable. Perhaps that is the reason why there is so much antagonism by both sides directed at both women. These women are far from perfect in their articulation of their points of view -- good and bad cases are made for both sides.
The viewer is left with the problem neatly pinpointed: ''Who will protect the family?'' Says Ms. FitzGerald in conclusion: ''The ERA exposed a profound cultural rift in American society.''
According her, the opposing points of view try to define the American family in their own ways, neither of which fit into the traditions of either Republican or Democratic Parties.
I chatted with Ms. FitzGerald after screening ''Who Will Protect the Family?, '' and she is a bit puzzled about the violent reactions from both sides, especially the pro-ERA side. ''If there is a real criticism of the ERA side, it is that they didn't do enough work, they didn't get down there into the factories of North Carolina as the other side did.''
Ms. FitzGerald believes that in North Carolina, as elsewhere, the legislators are typically men with little concern for ERA, pro or con. ''If the opponents of ERA manage to make it a controversial issue, those men don't want to risk other bills higher on their agenda, so either beg off, or vote against ERA. The pro side was not prepared for that. They weren't organized to do battle. Now, I feel they have learned a political lesson.''
Ms. FitzGerald says that ''the anti-ERA people have made it a test case for the traditional role of the woman in the family. Well, this area is difficult for feminists because they tend to approach things in terms of rights -- of the woman, of the child. When anti-ERA people use the word 'family' it is so often a corporate thing, rather than a matter of individual rights. Which means the husband governs.
''However, I think that pro-ERA activists are on the right track now. To concentrate on the economics of it. What happens in the family is such a deep and private cultural thing that people are beginning to resent it when one group stands up and says, 'Family should be this way.' The family in America means so many different things. There are so many different kinds of families in our culture that you can't talk about 'the family' so easily any more.
''The major things I hope this documentary will do is make people think about the changing makeup of the family in America. The reason for all of the emotional reaction to ERA is the fact that it is the place right now where the family culture touches politics and law.''
Would Ms. FitzGerald categorize herself as a pro-ERA feminist?
''I'd rather not talk about that at this particular moment. Anyway, I feel somewhat conflicted about it. . . .''
Although ''Who Will Protect the Family?'' is officially scheduled for tonight by the national PBS, many local stations are planning to air it at other times. Or not at all. You can call your local PBS station and inquire about it.