President Reagan may be doing more for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment than he realizes -- ironically, by virtue of the fact that he opposes the women's rights measure.
That is the opinion of ERA activist Betty Ford, who says: "We don't know yet what the reaction will be to . . . the negativism of this [Reagan] administration in addressing women's issues, but I think it will create a backlash that will give us momentum."
The former first lady was among ERA advocates who gathered here June 10 to announce a nationwide "countdown campaign" to secure ratification of the proposed constitutional amendment before June 30, 1982, the deadline for this round of efforts aimed at making it unconstitutional to deny equality of rights on the basis of sex.
Mrs Ford, who is honorary co-chairperson -- with actor Alan Alda -- of the campaigan, told the Monitor: "I'm encouraged. I think women will rise up as a group and say, 'You can't do this to us.' And men will, too."
It has been more than four years since the ERA was last ratified by a state. That vote, taken in January 1977 by the Indiana legislature brought to 35 the number of states that have approved the proposed measure -- three states short of the two-thirds total necessary for it to become an amendment to the US Constitution.
Since that time, there has been talk of some states trying to rescind their approval, as well as numerous predictions -- particularly after the election of President Reagan -- that the ERA was destined for failure.
At the campaign kickoff, however, ERA activists indicated that they believe support for the amendment -- and for women's issues -- is growing as a result of what many activists perceive as the Reagan administration's indifference, and even hostility, to women's rights.
According to National Organization for Women (NOW) president Eleanor Smeal, the number of people joining NOW has jumped from 3,500 a month to 9,000 a month in the wake of Mr. Reagan's election. In addition, recent Gallup and Harris polls cited by NOW indicate a 2-to-1 margin of support for the ERA.
The intensive 11th-hour campaign, which begins June 30 with rallies in 125 cities followed by all-night religious vigils at the White House and in Los Angeles, will be "extremely organized in a modern sense," Ms. Smeal told reporters.
Phone banks and computers will be used to develop a national network of ERA supporters numbering, it is hoped, 1 million. A cadre of activists will be trained for "hit list" work in the six targeted states --Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia -- where Ms. Smeal estimates that an only 6 to 10 votes are needed to ensure final ratification of the amendment.
In addition, grass-roots organizers will be targeting groups that have not played a significant role in ERA organizing in the past -- including elderly women, who, according to NOW, make only 55 percent of what a man makes on social security.
There will also be a thrust through talks with newspaper editors and paid advertisements, to counter misconceptions about the ERA, which reads, "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."
"There's confusion about what it means," acknowledged Mr. Alda. "Through lies, half- truths, and the fanning of fear, the ERA has gotten a bad rap," he said. "We're going to make sure everybody in this country knows what it means."