Illinois ERA vote: Reagan cheers it; NOW tactics shift

In a vote that was bound to make Ronald Reagan feel more welcome on his weekend visit to Illinois, state legislators last week rejected ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the US Constitution.

Mr. Reagan, while saying he supports equal rights for women, has consistently opposed the ERA. In Chicago for a Republican fund-raising party, he welcomed the anti-ERA vote here and explained that "I think we're all agreed on equal rights. We just disagree on the best way to do it."

Illinois's leading campaigner against the ERA, Phyllis Schlafly, told the Monitor the defeat here is a clear sign that "there is a national swing toward conservatism; Reagan is gaining all the time."

Politicians here find it hard to argue with this swing-to-the-right interpretation -- because the anti-ERA vote came despite a long and expensive campaign for ratification here. National Organization for Women (NOW) president Eleanor Smeal and some top staffers came to Illinois from Washington to lead the ratification drive. They set up a powerful lobbying organization here and won the support of the leading presidential contenders, other than Mr. Reagan.

Not only did candidates Jimmy Carter, Edward Kennedy and John Anderson back ERA firmly, but organized labor. Republican Illinois Gov. James Thompson, and Democratic Chicago Mayor jane Byrne endorsed ratification as well.

In Chicago for platform hearings last month, Republican National Committee chairman Bill Brock said he thought the 1980 GOP platform would continue to call for ERA ratification, as has been the case since Congress passed the amendment in 1972.

But as a result of the Illinois vote, ERA opponents are confident that this year's Republican platform will include support for women -- but drop all reference to ERA.

Other plans also have changed following the ERA defeat in Illinois, where 71 state representatives voted against and 102 voted for -- five votes shorts of the 60 percent needed.

NOW went into the Illinois battle declaring, "Illinois is a pivotal state if the ERA is to be ratified in this century."

Following the June 18 defeat, NOW leader Smeal pledged to "dig in," defeat anti-ERA legislators in the November elections, and somehow turn the vote around before the illinois legislative session ends in December. She has said the House vote here has only "Deferred," not defeated, ERA.

But the "no" vote has changed Mrs. Smeal's plans to sign illinois up as the 36th ratified state and then move the battle front quickly to North Carolina and Florida.

NOW workers had expected tough opposition in those Southern states. They counted on momentum gained in Illinois to help win over the South.

After the illinois setback, however, even the most determined ERA proponents admit that it may be impossible to meet the extended June 30, 1982, deadline. By that time, 38 states -- three more than have come through so far -- must ratify the proposal to make ERA the 27th amendment to the Constitution.

Calling the Illinois vote a "major disappointment," President Carter told ERA supporters in Washington June 18 that "we did not get into this fight to lose . . . . We will ratify the Equal Rights Amendment for the United States of America."

But according to Stop-ERA leader Schlafly, ERA supporters are fighting a losing battle.

Pointing out that not a single state has joined the ratification ranks since 1977, Mrs. Schlafly says the reason for the changing public attitude is that the full implications are becoming clearer with time. She feels her message has gotten through, that voting for ERA means voting for abortion, voting for drafting women into military service, and voting for "giving considerably greater powers to the federal government."

Mrs. Schlafly explains that politicians coast to coast are finding out "that people like ERA even less than they like raising taxes."

Chicago's two major daily newspapers do not agree with Mrs. Schlafly.

A Chicago Tribune editorial called on Illinois to reverse last week's ERA rejection, said the vote may be essential for national ratification, and concluded: "We hope legislators will ask themselves whether they want Illinois to be blamed for the defeat of a measure which assures equal rights to women -- even if its effect is mainly symbolic."

The Chicago Sun-Times chimed in: "The whole nation watched as illinois retained its distinction as the only Northern industrial state that hasn't ratified ERA. In other words, that's OK for Mississippi, but not for a supposedly enlightened state."

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