The Republican Party's stance on the Equal Rights Amendment has become a sharply divisive issue.
The subject is also turning up in my mail with increasing frequency, and opinions about it are being expressed with greater emotion.
A Chevy Chase woman wonders whether it would be of any help for me to repeat the simple words of the proposed amendment: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex." I must give her a negative answer.
I don't think repetition is needed nearly as much as a larger measure of understanding and good will.
Since I cited the simplicity of the proposed amendment's language as my reason for supporting ERA, I have received much mail arguing that the language is too simple, and for that reason the amendment should not be approved. These letters contend that because the amendment give no clue as to how it would be implemented or interpreted, ERA would lead to endless litigation -- for example, on the question of whether service in the military forces is a "right" or a duty.
If ERA were passed, we would almost certainly have to wait until the courts had ruled on a series of test cases before we would know for sure whether the law meant that women may register for the draft if they want to, must register to avoid discrimination against men, or are barred from registering whether they want to or not. I think it is this uncertainty about what would ensure that causes many Americans to withhold support from ERA.
I will concede the some ERA opponents simply may be misogynists who are against anything women are for, but I don't know anybody who is in that category and I don't think the group is large enough to worry about.
One of the letters I published cited the possible precedent of the 16th Amendment which in the simplest of language gave Congress the power to "lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived." That one was passed as a soak-the-rich measure. Hah!
Nobody told us what a mare's-nest the tax code was destined to become, how heavy a burden was to be put on the average working family, how complicated and unpredictable IRS regulations and rulings would be or how much it would cost a taxpayer to fight Uncle Sam in the courts -- with no assurance the courts would rule in his favor even when the law seemed to be entirely on his side.
It is reasonable to guess that when a coalition was formed to help women get equal rights under law, it was recognized at once that there were two basic choices: an amendment that would try to spell out exactly how words like "equality" and "rights" would be applied to specific activities, or an amendment that would avoid specifics in an attempt to obtain legal status for a basic moral issue.
Obviously, the decision was to make it short and sweet. In a pragmatic sense, that turned out to be a poor choice because it failed to win quick acceptance. If I had been asked for my view a decade ago, I would have sided with those who were in favor of the short, simple statement of principle. And in retrospect, I'd have been wrong, too.
I think that if sensible legislation is ever proposed to spell out how "equal rights" will work for people with social and biological differences that need to be accommodated, it will be approved quickly. I am of the firm opinion that we were not divided into one group that thinks women are equal and another group that thinks women are inferior, simplistic statement that every citizen ought to have equal rights before the law. What we argue about is the application of that vague principle to specific situations.
If insurance companies find that young drivers have more accidents than old drivers, is it discriminatory for them to charge higher rates for young drivers?
No? Then how about insurance records that might indicate men are safer drivers than women, or that women are safer drivers than men? Could a company's rates discriminate by sex, or would that be in violation of ERA? Would court rulings vary and create uncertainty?
If statistics show that women live longer than men and that women who buy annuities, or are covered by pension plans, collect greater benefits than men, would ERA permit discriminatory premiums or benefits?
These are practical questions. People want reassurance about them before they support ERA.
Personally, I'm willing to accept ERA despite the uncertainty about its consequences and court interpretations. I'm just tired of seeing women get short shrift in a male world -- for example, lower pay for equal work.
But I can certainly understand why some Americans oppose ERA. Before people commit themselves, they like to know what they're getting into.