''Failure is impossible'' said Susan B. Anthony, looking back on more than 50 years of her life spent fighting for women's suffrage -- a goal which would not be realized until 14 years after her death. When I first heard those words, I marveled that she could find the courage to say them. To even think them. How could she devote her entire life to what appeared, at the time, to be a fruitless cause, and say at age 86, ''Failure is impossible.''
Today I understand those words and the feelings that prompted them. I have just spent a year of my life working for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in Georgia -- a cause that seems irretrievably lost. But I, too, believe that failure is impossible.
When the vote was called in the House of Representatives, I sat in the gallery with a crowd of supporters and opponents of the ERA, scarcely believing that this was the moment toward which all our efforts had pointed. When the red lights flashed up on the board, obscuring the few green ones, my first thought was: ''That's it, it's over.'' But I have since realized that it's not over at all.
How do you date the beginning of the fight for women's rights in this country? To the first Woman's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848? To Abigail Adams's unheeded request to husband John to ''remember the ladies'' when drawing up the laws of the land? However you calculate, the struggle has been a long one. It continues today. And though defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment is a setback -- one that pains us and angers us -- it by no means signals the end. Passage of the ERA would not have been the end either.
In the days that have passed since Jan. 20, I have done a lot of thinking about the past year and the 365 days of it that I spent working on the ERA. I know that others like myself did not get involved until we suddenly realized that it was almost too late. We entered the fight knowing that it was all but hopeless, wanting nevertheless to do all we could and hoping that somehow we would make a difference.
The question is, did we make a difference? Not if you look at the vote count, which was even worse than the last House vote in 1974. But I don't think that the vote is an accurate measure of our success or failure. I prefer to look at our accomplishments: the rallies we organized, the speeches we gave, the petitions we collected, the money we raised, the people we involved who had never been involved before. None of us is the same.
It was hard work, yes, but it was probably also the most exciting, fulfilling year of my life. I made many wonderful friends, with whom I share the special camaraderie of having worked together for something we deeply believe in. I developed skills that I didn't know I had. And most of all, I gained a sense of history - women's history. In working for the ERA I discovered a heritage that I hadn't known about.
I know now why failure is impossible. Because our ''failure'' with the Equal Rights Amendment has been instructive. We lost, but we also gained. And winning is not only in the attainment of the goal but in the struggle itself.
Failure is impossible because we will use what we have learned and we will go on. Failure is impossible because ultimately we will translate it into success. Susan B. Anthony knew it. I know it, too.