ERA's persistent adversary -- uncertainty over effects

The chants of Equal Rights Amendment backers still hang in the air in this Southern city with its Spanish moss dangling from live oak trees. But hope for the ERA in Florida, and almost certainly in the nation, evaporated this week in a sound beating in the state Senate.

For all the green-clad ERA supporters singing, ''We will never give up; we will never give in,'' the 16-to-22 Senate vote showed opponents to be more entrenched than ever.

Far from winning over more lawmakers in Florida, the ERA lost ground. So strong were the feelings that one senator, under fire for alleged financial wrongdoing, held on to his seat long enough to vote no on the ERA, then promptly resigned. Another senator, once elected with help from pro-ERA groups, switched to the opposition.

The vote is one more sign that resistance to the proposed amendment has stiffened as the ERA moves toward the June 30 deadline for winning over three more states. ''People fear change,'' offered one pro-ERA worker in Florida.

Objectors dressed in bright red came by the busload for what may be the last ratification vote. Their arguments have by now become familiar: The ERA would destroy the family, permit homosexuals to marry, and put women into battlefields.

''The husband is the head of the family,'' holds Erik Stower, of Niceville, Fla. His wife, Mary, nods in agreement as she stands nearby with their toddler daughter, sporting a Stop ERA sign. Mr. Stower charges that the ERA would ''destroy the function of women'' whose responsibility is ''to raise the family with the husband providing the financial means and spiritual guidance.''

Nancy Robichaux of Blountstown, Fla., says, ''I have three daughters and I don't want them to be drafted,'' explaining why she visisted 38 churches to speak against the ERA.

Proponents counter that the same ''destroy the family'' steam was used against women's right to vote and that the ERA would not make homosexual marriages legal. Moreover, they say women would not necessarily have to fight, although draft laws should be based on ability to serve, not sex.

Florida state Rep. Eleanor Weinstock labeled the opposition arguments ''a parade of horribles'' and ''far-fetched possibilities that nobody wants.'' The ERA ''does not say women and men must have identical roles,'' she told her House colleagues, who voted narrowly in favor of the ERA shortly before the Florida Senate killed it.

Despite efforts to answer lingering doubts since the ERA first passed Congress 10 years ago, uncertainty still appears as one of its biggest foes. ''No one and no person can say what are the legal parameters in the future of that Equal Rights Amendment,'' said state Rep. Fred Tygart. ''Where would it lead us?''

That question has opened the door for the visible reaction to the ERA. But some in the proponents' camp, especially the National Organization for Women (NOW), see the real reason for defeat as financial.

Businesses profit by paying women less than men, that reasoning goes. ''Do you see the chamber of commerce on our list of supporters?'' a Florida ERA backer asks.

In recent months, NOW has taken direct aim at insurance companies, which routinely charge men and women different rates, sometimes benefiting women, sometimes men. In the long run, NOW charges that women end up paying $15,000 more than they should during their lifetime.

The ERA, which would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, would force insurance companies to treat men and women equally, according to NOW. One Florida state senator mentioned the insurance issue as one reason to oppose the ERA.

Regardless of why the ERA went down in Florida and elsewhere, the message to its supporters is becoming clear. They have not yet won the political clout they need. NOW President Eleanor Smeal told followers that the key is electing more women to state legislatures, which are now only about 11 percent female.

''We are no longer going to beg men for our rights,'' the NOW head vowed at a Tallahassee rally as she read a list of candidates to challenge lawmakers who voted no on the ERA.

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