Former US First Ladies provide launch pad for new ERA drive. Constitutional change will preserve gains made, speakers say

Six years after the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, women's rights leaders across the country are renewing their call for a constitutional guarantee of equality for men and women. During a two-day national symposium on ``Women and the Constitution: A Bicentennial Perspective,'' convened here late last week by former First Ladies Rosalynn Carter, Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, and Pat Nixon, the ERA ran as a theme through speeches and workshops. Noting that nearly every modern constitution except that of the United States includes a provision for equality, speakers warned that only a constitutional amendment will preserve the gains women have won in recent decades.

The ERA says, simply: ``Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.''

``Until we get the ERA, women must depend upon a generous and dynamic interpretation of the Constitution by a largely male judiciary,'' said Eleanor Holmes Norton. The Georgetown University law professor said she is optimistic the amendment will pass ``before the year 2000.'' And Lt. Gov. Martha Griffiths of Michigan predicted: ``In your lifetime, the ERA will become the law of the country.''

Others remain less certain about its chances for success. Calling the amendment's revival ``most problematical,'' former US Rep. Barbara Jordan, now a professor at the University of Texas, said: ``All women do not support the Equal Rights Amendment. Those who do must respect the right of others to choose not to support ERA.'' But she emphasized that the ERA would ``end all ambiguity and obfuscation and place women squarely within the letter of the Constitution.''

The conference at the Atlanta Hilton, which drew 1,500 women from all 50 states and 10 foreign countries, was sponsored by the Carter Center of Emory University and Georgia State University.

``In a perfect world, this conference would have been called `Women in the Constitution,' rather than `Women and the Constitution,''' Mrs. Carter said. ``It's important to recognize the barriers that still exist to women's full equality.''

Some barriers, of course, have already fallen. Since 1971, the Supreme Court has heard more than 50 cases involving sex-based challenges relating to hiring, promotions, maternity leave, disability insurance, pension rights, and seniority.

Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman on the Supreme Court, was a keynote speaker. She observed that the volume of cases in the court dealing with sex discrimination has declined somewhat in the '80s. Yet, Justice O'Connor added, ``in the broad area of women and the Constitution, I would say we [the Supreme Court] will linger for a good many more years.''

One of the most difficult areas still to be addressed involves reproductive rights. Gayle Binion, a professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, called ``the right of a pregnant woman to autonomy over her own body'' a critical problem. She outlined three ``bedrock issues'' - the question of parental consent when a pregnant teen-ager wants an abortion, surrogacy, and pregnancy leave.

US Rep. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine added that two issues - work and family - have become ``inescapable'' in the 100th Congress.

``Our laws will have to change to conform to the fact that the only people who carry and bear children are indispensable in the workforce,'' she said. ``From the standpoint of fairness, that which makes women different from men should not be a disadvantage in the workplace.''

Speakers also emphasized the importance of women's growing political involvement. Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic vice-presidential candidate, noted that women hold 14 percent of the top statewide elective offices in the country. ``Every time a woman runs for any elective office, it's like throwing a stone in a lake,'' she said. ``The ripple effect is felt far beyond the immediate point of impact.'' But, she warned, ``If you don't run, you can't win.''

Coretta Scott King, the widow of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., outlined two other important tools for women: a clearly defined legislative agenda and what she calls ``legislative alert networks'' to inform women's and minority organizations when Congress is ready to act on bills of concern to them.

Rep. Snowe goes a step further, envisioning the ultimate proof of equality. Referring to the sponsorship of this Bicentennial conference by the wives of former Presidents, she said, ``I hope when we observe the Tricentennial, it will be hosted by former women presidents of the United States.''

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