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New Drive Afoot to Pass Equal Rights Amendment

Even backers of the amendment such as Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) expect a legal battle on that question. They are reintroducing the amendment in Congress and hope to start the ratification process again from scratch.

Idella Moore, executive officer of Atlanta-based 4ERA, said she and other supporters are trying to convince Americans that it makes sense to adopt the amendment, even though people have not focused on the issue for years.

"It's a hell of a challenge," Moore said. "We're trying to reposition it back into the mainstream."

ERA backers have enjoyed limited success so far -- Florida's House speaker has yet to assign the bill to committee, and the Arkansas House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs deadlocked 10 to 10. But the drive has sparked a new national discussion on women's rights.

"I think we've made a lot of people think about this and say, 'Yes, this is the right thing to do,' " said Arkansas state Rep. Lindsley Smith (D), who sponsored the ERA and has vowed to bring it up again when the legislature reconvenes in 2009. "The question I get most frequently is 'Lindsley, I thought this already was in the Constitution.' "

Jay Barth, a professor of politics at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., said the recent debate shows both the advances the women's movement has made in the South and its limitations.

"Gender equity has definitely become a no-brainer aspect of Democratic Party ideology, even in Southern states. Thirty years ago, that was not the case," Barth said. But he added that when it came to ratifying the amendment this year, "it certainly wasn't a priority for Democratic Party officials."

Opponents warn that enacting the amendment could produce unintended consequences. Arkansas state Rep. Dan Greenberg (R) said he opposes the measure because courts in two states have ruled that equal-rights amendments in state constitutions justify state funding for abortion.

"The more general language you have in a constitutional amendment, the more unpredictable the policy impact will be," Greenberg said.

Caroline Fredrickson, who directs the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that "it's hard to predict" how courts would interpret the amendment. But she said it is more likely the ERA would allow women to sue for higher pay and other benefits.

"It has really hampered women's ability to get fair treatment in the workplace and other aspects of their lives," she said.

It remains unclear whether the amendment -- which has 194 House co-sponsors and 10 Senate co-sponsors and no longer includes a deadline for ratification -- can get a two-thirds vote in Congress. Nadler, who chairs the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights, and civil liberties, said the bill will receive its first hearing in more than two decades and "is going to be one of the items at the top of the agenda."

In many ways, yesterday's news conference on Capitol Hill underscored how much has changed since Congress last voted on the ERA. As Digital Sisters Inc. chief executive Shireen Mitchell announced that her online site is working to marshal support for the bill, Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal quipped: "The last time around, we didn't have Digital Sisters."

Staff researcher Rena Kirsch contributed to this report.

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