The challenge for the Republican Party now is to demonstrate that it has not lessened its historic commitment to equal rights for men and women even though its proposed 1980 platform abandos the party's commitment to the Equal Rights Amendment. The ratification of this amendment was seen as "essential to insure equal rights for all Americans" in the GOP's 1976 platform. Four years later the platform withholds any encouragement for ratification in the handful of states needed to make the ERA a part of the Constitution.
For the majority of polled americans who favor the ERA the platform committee may have made the GOP appear to have failed a crucial test. But, on the other hand, a useful test for the country may be derived from the committee action. For it added to the platform a sentence stating: "We acknowledge the legitimate efforts of those who support or oppose ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment." And this can be taken not only as bland political compromise but as a nurdge toward lifting the ERA debate from the arena of cheap shots and broad generalizations to a realm of calm and specific analysis.
A central question is whether ERA is really "essential" to ensuring equal rights, as the GOP believed four years ago and on back to 1940, or whether existing and future laws and constitutional interpretations are sufficient. This is a matter that Republican candidates at all levels of government could help to clarify by showing how they have helped or can help reduce sex bias without the ERA.
Does the record of equal rights amendments in state constitutions shed light on whether a federal constitutional amendment would hasten the day of equality or would fulfill the fears of those who see ERA as a threat to the family, the homemaker, the rights that women or men already have?
Sixteen states now have their own equal rights amendments. ERA opponent Phyllis Schlafly has pointed critically to various cases. In Maryland, a law that punished husbands (but not wives) for desertion or failure to provide support was struck down by the equal rights amendment. In Pennsylavania, a court ruled that a law which makes a husband responsible for his wife's debts but not vice versa was in conflict with a similar state amendment. Is the American public ready for equality in these terms?
By way of perspective, a survey by the US Commission on Human Rights last year found that, despite "dire predictions," the state experience with equal rights amendments had been one of "substantial" and "orderly" strides toward equality. The head of the women's rights unit noted that the position of homemakers, for example, was being strengthened; the economic value of homemaking was being recognized.
Just this week a spokeswoman for the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs said there had been improvement in the legal position of women in states with equal rights amendments -- especially in regard to pensions, insurance, and inheritance laws. Yet she noted that a state- by-state extension of equal rights amendments to state constitutions would not replace a federal ERA. In a society as mobile as the United States, individuals need federal protection, and state laws do not govern federal practices. Others have pointed to another reason for federal ERA: that the federal government is the nation's single largest employer, and the sexes need equal treatment in laws affecting employment.
If the GOP platform does prompt a freshened national debate on the ERA, it should include an airing of the legislative history of the ERA to aid an understanding of the congressional intentions on which future court interpretations would rely. One basic point is that the ERA applies to governmental rather than private action. Not to be overlooked is what the Senate Judiciary Committee originally said in recommending the amendment:
"Essentially, the amendment requires that the federal government and all state and local governments treat each person, male and female, as an individual. It does not require that any level of government establish quotas for men or for women in any of its activities; rather, it simply prohibits discrimination on the basis of a person's sex. The amendment applies only to government action; it does not affect private action or the purely social relationships between men and women."