The democratic Party has taken its most radical step yet in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, enhancing an apparent advantage handed it when the Republican Party excluded the ERA from its platform last month.
Capping a hard-fought battle led by a broad coalition of women's-rights activists, the Democrats passed Aug. 12 a platform proposal (Minority Report No. 10) which states that party funds will be withheld from any Democratic candidate who does not support the ERA.
In recent national polls, more than 55 percent of those who were aware of the ERA have indicated they favored it. A Gallup poll taken July 11-14 showed 58 percent in favor of the amendment, 31 percent against, and 11 percent with no opinion.
Despite President Carter's support of ERA, the White House was adamantly opposed to making support of the amendment a test of Democratic candidates' worthiness to receive campaign funds from the national party. Carter forces had planned to try to hold their delegates in line against Minority Report 10, but when it became apparent the measure would be passed, the Carter "whips" were withdrawn from the floor and the proposal easily won on a voice vote. The inclusion of the measure in the platform -- along with another proposal (Minority Report No. 11) calling for federal funding of abortions -- was seen as a major show of strength by feminist forces at the convention. For the first time in the Democratic Party's history women make up 50 percent of the delegates.
Feminists have argued that the stand on funding -- an extreme move which opponents contend sets a dangerous precedent -- is necessary if the ERA is to be ratified by its deadline date of June 1982.
Buth although the platform is the official statement of Democratic Party policy, it is not legally binding and many observers here predict the President may try to distance himself from both minority reports.
Meanwhile, President Carter draws mixed reviews here for his performance on women's rights. It is widely acknowledged that he has done more for women than any other president. His record includes the appointment of 38 of the 43 women now serving as federal judges, compared with only 10 other women who have ever held that post. He has also appointed three women as Cabinet secretaries (only three other women in history have held similar positions).
"He hasn't done as much as he could have done, but he's done 100 percent better than anybody else who's ever held that office," said Chris Birch, one of the few Carter delegates from Massachusetts.
"Where else can women turn?" she said of this fall's election. "it's the party for women and minorities. It always has been."
Still, Mr. Carter is sharply criticized by women activists who claim that his support for the ER has been lukewarm. (Only one state, Indiana, has ratified the ERA since President Carter moved into the Oval Office nearly four years ago).
The ERA, say these women, has not been given top priority on the White House Agenda -- a charge denied by Carter officials who say they will be working "on a priority basis" for pro-ERA candidates this fall.
But at a press conference following the feminist's convention floor victories , Midge Costanza, a former Carter aide, said: "I was part of that campaign in 1976. I was part of the push for ratification of the Panama Canal treaties, for the energy package, and for welfare reform. I've seen the White House in action.
"Do you think if he [Carter] had applied those forces on this issue, we'd have ERA ratification now? You bet we would," said the one-time Carter aide, who made a stormy exit from the administration. "The ERa has never been given that priority."
Other women's-rights leaders argue that, despite passage of the two minority reports, feminists support should not be taken for granted by the Democrats this fall. In fact, they say, they plan to wait and see whether Carter will support the two reports or try to distance himself from the issue. (In the past, the President has made it clear that he is personally opposed to abortions.)
While Carter critics are even more opposed to Republican nominee Ronald Reagan, many have indicted that if the President falls short of their expectations, they may turn to independent candidate John Anderson.
"The Democratic Party, particularly at the presidential level, cannot take for granted our support just because Ronald Reagan has been named the nominee of the Republican Party," warned Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women.
Overall, however, the consensus seems to be that the recent strengthening of the party's commitment to women's rights will serve as a strong attraction for rank-and-file feminist voters.