ERA supporters undaunted as time slips away

Only 10 days left.

As the last grains are dropping out of the hour-glass for the Equal Rights Amendment, supporters have yet to win even one of the three remaining states required before the ERA expires June 30.

Opponents are already preparing their victory parties, and at least one columnist has published an obituary for the constitutional amendment. On almost every side, friends and foes are advising that the battle is lost.

But the pro-ERA forces do not seem to listen. In the face of almost certain defeat, they are fighting with growing intensity as the deadline nears.

This week they are converging on Florida, which could be the last state to vote on the ERA before June 30. The Legislature opens a three-day special session June 21 called by Gov. Robert Graham, an ERA backer.

Armed with a new Louis Harris poll showing that 58 percent of Floridians approve of the ERA, Governor Graham and proponents are waging an intense lobbying campaign. Even so, the governor's office has counted votes and holds out little hope for passage, especially in the state senate where anti-ERA forces have long held the majority.

ERA supporters claim to be more determined rather than disheartened because of such pessimistic forecasts.

''I don't know how to explain it, but people are pretty upbeat,'' says Florida ERAmerica coordinator Billie M. Bobbitt, a retired Air Force colonel. Even in areas that seem hopeless because all of the legislators oppose the ERA, proponents ''are working like crazy,'' she says. ''People are saying they haven't got a prayer, and they keep pressing.''

That mood has been the hallmark of the nationwide eleventh hour effort for the ERA. Even as their cause looks hopeless, supporters have poured in contributions at a rate of more than $1 million a month. The National Organization for Women (NOW) reports mobilizing 7,000 volunteers to work in four targeted states, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, and Oklahoma.

''We've known for these last several months that it's an uphill battle,'' says Suone Cotner, executive director of ERAmerica, a coalition of 250 organizations including NOW. But after three years with the coalition, she has watched an upsurge of interest in the past eight to 10 months. ''It's absolutely phenomenal,'' she says.

An almost desperation last-ditch effort has resulted.

In Washington, a handful of women, sometimes men as well, have gathered outside the White House every Wednesday for more than a year to hold up purple and blue ERA banners. It seems to matter little that the occupant of the White House opposes the effort.

Those interviewed argue that even if the amendment fails this time, they will continue the fight. ''The question is not 'if,' it's 'when,' '' has become a familiar battle cry.

''I think everybody has to know that we're not going to go away,'' says Becky Hall-Noble, a homemaker from Silver Spring, Md., who came on a recent Wednesday for the first time. She came, she says, ''because I have two daughters and because I am a woman.''

Perhaps most controversial are the seven women who have fasted since mid-May in Springfield, Ill., where the ERA has been bottled up by a legislative procedural battle.

One of the fasters, Mary Anne Beall of Falls Church, Va., said in a telephone interview June 18 that she refuses to give up on Illinois. ''I think we still have a chance,'' she says, adding that her mission goes beyond the amendment itself.

''For me personally, no matter what political maneuverings there are, the spiritual call that brought me here to witness still calls me,'' she says.

Her husband Raymond Bridge is fasting one day a week, ''in solidarity,'' with their two teen-aged daughters. He says, ''I see their action as something to appeal to people and say, 'Try and understand just how much this issue means to American women.' ''

While others question the tactic, sociologist Carol Mueller of Tufts University in Medford, Mass., sees it as one sign that the ERA movement is finally taking a firm hold.

Only after the ERA had glided smoothly through some 30 state legislatures, trying to reach the 38 required, did the opposition mobilize. And only then did the supporters begin to organize in earnest.

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