If enacted, a new amendment to the Constitution (the 27th) would read: ''Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.''
Simple and direct, say advocates of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Confusing and obscure, say opponents. Some charge it would let loose a generation of court interpretations. President Reagan says he wants sex equality , but opposes this approach. The Republicans, as a party, have paid the idea lip service for 40 years.
The Reagan White House staff has made a heavy-handed effort to reduce the tension with laughter and has helped produce what some call a classic hot-weather story. President Reagan has made a further explanation of his opinion. Meanwhile, polls show that in 1980, 56 percent of all men voted for him but only 47 percent of all women.
In San Diego on Friday, Mr. Reagan, in a speech billed by aides as a response to charges by a disgruntled former Justice Department official that the administration's move to eliminate anti-discriminatory laws is a ''sham,'' said:
''I think it's time to cut through the fog of demagoguery that surrounds this whole issue. . . . All of us are interested in one goal: ensuring legal equity for women.''
The attack on the Reagan program is by feminist Barbara Honegger, who quit a administration support.
The Republican National Committee has enlisted the President's daughter, Maureen Reagan - an ERA supporter - to help improve the GOP's image among women.
Most people want sex equality - but how?
Last spring, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) of Utah, chairman of the Constitution subcommittee and an opponent of the ERA, restarted hearings on the amendment, noting that the more it has been discussed, ''the less successful it has been.'' Congress initiated an ERA proposal in 1972 that fell three states short of the 38 needed for ratification. Congress extended the deadline in vain. Senator Hatch says that Congress isn't serious. Reagan also argues that there are better ways to proceed. One is to eliminate discriminatory legislation a law at a time. Barbara Honegger had been enlisted to search such laws out.
Many winced at the White House's heavy-handed response to the one-woman Honegger challenge. Justice department spokesman Tom DeCair derided her as a ''low-level munchkin.'' White House press spokesman Larry Speakes carried the ridicule further: ''The last time I saw her, she [Honegger] was the Easter Bunny at the White House Easter Egg roll.''
It made Miss Honegger a celebrity overnight; it brought retorts in kind; it filled a midsummer news gap; it stimulated charges directed at the President's daughter; and it forced Mr. Reagan to redefine his position.
In his carefully prepared San Diego speech to the Women's Leadership Forum Friday, Reagan pointed to the program he had initiated to expose unequitable laws and practices. There are rules on the books, he said, to safeguard the rights of women, and ''these laws must be enforced; some must be strengthened.''
Instances of unjust laws, Reagan said, have been collected and submitted for review to the Cabinet Council on Legal Policy. He has ordered officials to speed the work.
The Honegger flareup has raised other questions. Mr. Reagan has recently criticized supposed slights by the press. Reporters find the President one of the most amiable men who has sat in the White House. They ask now, with a number of basic national and international problems coming to the front, if the administration does not need a staff capable of a lighter touch and a less abrasive approach.