New York ERA push gets mixed reviews from women's groups

State equal rights amendments (ERAs) are a good thing, says Judy Goldsmith, president of the National Organization for Women. ''But a federal ERA is a better good thing,'' she says. And that is the crux of the issue in New York State.

Last week, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo pledged to work to pass a state ERA and put it before voters as an amendment to the state's constitution. Reaction has ranged from elation to cautious approval to chagrin. It has caused such an uproar that the governor will meet with state and national women's rights leaders Thursday.

Theresa D. Bergen, president of the New York State National Organization for Women (NOW), says she was ''surprised, caught off guard'' by the governor's announcement. If she had been asked, her advice would have been ''don't do it.''

Not all ERA supporters in New York agree.

''It is a symbol of some substance,'' says Karen Burstein, commissioner of the state civil service.

''In 1975, we didn't have the power structure with us,'' she says. Now the effort has ''an Italian, Catholic, male governor who is strongly identified with family issues'' championing the cause.

She points out that state amendments have been ''wonderful tools'' in the 16 states that have them, and guesses that it could have a positive impact on the federal effort. Others agree.

''Success breeds success,'' says Assemblywoman May Newburger (D) of Long Island, head of the Assembly Task Force on Women's Issues. Supporting the federal ERA has been her position, but she thinks it's ''terrific'' that the governor has taken a strong stand.

The federal ERA was reintroduced into Congress after the deadline for ratification had passed in 1982. But the amendment lost a floor vote in the House in November. ''How long do you wait on one level?'' asks Assemblywoman Newburger. ''I was ready to wait . . . but I am tending toward saying, 'Give it a shot.' ''

But many organized groups, while applauding every effort to promote women's rights, insist it is better to focus on a national ERA.

A federal ERA would cover not only those states that do not have - and are not likely to get - a state ERA, but it would cover the many federal laws and regulations that a state ERA could not touch, says NOW president Goldsmith.

Sometimes, proposed state ERAs are not worded in ways that women's groups find palatable. Wisconsin considered an ERA with features that the American Association of University Women (AAUW) did not like, points out Johanna Mendelson, director of public policy. It made exceptions to the law in such cases as single-sex schools, homosexuality, and military service.

But though AAUW's primary goal is the passage of a federal ERA, she admits the group is on the ''horns of a dilemma'' regarding the issue of state amendments. ''We tell our state groups that a state ERA is good. It has produced positive case law.''

Ronnie Eldridge, director of the state's division for women, defends the governor's initiative:

''It is saying 'This is the kind of society we want.' It will give impetus to the national movement.''

She points out that Governor Cuomo plans to support the amendment the same way he did a recently passed bond issue, and he does not expect women's groups to use up all their resources. ''It would not be a duplicating effort. This should be welcomed and looked at as an added dimension (in the fight for equal opportunity).''

Though the governor plans to meet with leaders of women's groups, Ms. Eldridge says there will be no change in plans for a state ERA.

Feminist leaders see a changed public perception since the 1975 state ERA defeat.

''As women go outside and work, they encounter problems they didn't face before,'' says Nancy D. Perlman, director of the Center for Women in Government in Albany. She says she is convinced the state ERA will pass if it is brought to the ballot.

Ms. Eldridge says that the governor did some preliminary polling before he brought the idea forward, and found support for the amendment throughout the state.

It would give a stricter standard of judicial scrutiny, points out Ms. Eldridge, and offer greater support for women as a ''suspect class'' in civil rights rulings.

But there will still be opposition from those who do not like the idea of an equal rights amendment - state or federal.

''No one is opposed to women's rights,'' says Seraphin Maltese, executive director of the state's Conservative Party. ''But I think I'd rather pass laws piecemeal for particular grievances than use the blunderbuss approach.''

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