Why ERA failed: opponents' tactics proved potent

To hear some supporters tell it, the Equal Rights Amendment went down because ''a handful of state legislators'' refused to be dragged, even kicking and screaming, out of the 19th century.

In Florida, comments by some of the state senators seemed to support that description, as they rejected the constitutional amendment one last time.

More than one lawmaker talked of the danger to the Boy Scouts should the ERA pass. Another worried that the ERA might mean social security benefits for homemakers, at a time when ''social security is already broke.'' Still another Florida state senator offered evidence that women did not need protection of the ERA, since his lawyer daughter-in-law earns a bigger salary than her lawyer husband.

Such lawmakers, nearly all men but a handful of women as well, did in fact cast votes that doomed the constitutional amendment to guarantee equal treatment for men and women. But the defeat of the ERA goes much deeper.

Some of the responsibility may also rest with business interests, as the National Organization for Women (NOW) charges. Corporate America did not jump for joy over the ERA.

But then, when does the Chamber of Commerce ever push for any law that might force companies to make changes?

Other factors include the strong conservative cast of the nation. Many Americans rejected the radical movements of the 1960s and early '70s. Even if NOW had elected as its president Eleanor Smeal, a homemaker who wore skirts and lipstick, visions of strident bra-burners persisted. ERA opponents continued to paint proponents in the hues of radicalism.

The success of this tactic probably lay in gnawing doubts about the rapidly changing role of women. Women had gone into the marketplace by the millions until they reached 43 percent of the work force.

Phyllis Schlafly's Stop ERA and groups with such names as FLAG, Minute Women, and Happiness of Womanhood rose up in protest. But people with less extreme views began to speak out, too. Articles on ''the last housewife'' appeared in newspapers.

Even given all of these obstacles, the ERA might still have succeeded. After all, the crusade for the vote had faced almost identical resistance.

But as Carol Mueller, a Tufts University sociologist, points out in her paper ''ERA - Understanding the Opposition,'' the ERA movement never built up the strength of the suffrage movement.

In the earlier movement, women had been working on the grass-roots level for 30 years in the states. The National American Women's Suffrage Association had 2 million members nationwide, and by the time Congress finally approved the suffrage amendment, the local groups were ready for action. They pushed the states to ratify in less than two years' time.

''In contrast, the National Organization for Women was just beginning to reach out and form grass roots organizations when the ERA passed (in Congress 10 years ago),'' Professor Mueller writes. ''It was not equipped in 1972 to handle a hard fight for the ERA and didn't think it would have to.''

Almost unopposed in Congress, the ERA sailed easily through its first 30 ratification votes. Then the opposition dug in, and ERA supporters never regained the momentum to win the 38 required by June 30, 1982.

One reason is that the amendment had never reached deep into the hearts of Americans. As Ms. Mueller writes, it is ''not very clear to anyone but a lawyer what the ERA will do concretely for women,'' despite arguments that it will raise wages for them, aid abused women, and encourage job training for single mothers.

Dorothy S. Ridings, president of the League of Women Voters, said in a recent interview, ''We made an error in not making homemakers recognize that they need the ERA.''

''We thought it was so logical, so right,'' she recalled of the early days of the ERA drive. ''About '77 we realized we had a real sales job to do.''

Now the pro-ERA forces must start all over again, from the ground up. And they apparently have already begun.

Just hours after NOW president Smeal announced the end of the ERA campaign, on June 24, canvassers were out on the streets in a Boston suburb. A young woman rang a doorbell urging support for ''qualified, responsible women'' for public office. She left some literature and moved on to the next house. A teen-ager who overheard the conversation said, ''I thought ERA was over.''

''It certainly doesn't look like it,'' retorted her dad.

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