Sonia Johnson, from housewife to heretic to hunger striker, clenches her fist in determination. It is the 21st day of her fast for the Equal Rights Amendment.

"You could just roast your fingers and eat them," she says, gritting her teeth.

"I was in the ambulance going to the hospital today and all I could think of was a ham and cheese sandwich. Grilled, of course, with lettuce and tomato. I tell you, it was such agony. Agony. It is just torture. The nurse in the hospital said, 'Why don't you and I just go out for a double cheese and pepperoni pizza.' "

Every morning for the last three weeks, Johnson and six other feminist fasters have climbed into their Gloriamobile (a rented Dodge van paid for by Ms. magazine editor Gloria Steinem) and ridden down Sixth street, past the Black Angus Steak House and the Male Ego hair salon, to the state capitol where they camp on the cool marble floor of the rotunda.

One is a nun. One is gay. One is a grandmother. One is blind in one eye. The seven have lost 200 pounds collectively, consuming nothing but Mountain Valley spring water. Straight up. On the rocks. Carbonated. The weight loss is more evident on some than on others.

Sonia Johnson, 46-year-old Sterling, Va., author of "From Housewife to Heretic," detailing her 1979 excommunication from the Mormon Church for her pro-ERA stand, has shrunk from 123 to 101 pounds and collapsed twice. This day, Monday, she had been rushed to the hospital, suffering from dangerously low blood pressure and potassium levels. The doctor suggested she supplement her diet with one glass of Perrier a day for its sodium content. Despite the threat to her health, she continues.

"I think it's worth dying for," she says softly, lying on a bed in her darkened motel room. "Certainly justice for women is as worth dying for as justice for men has ever been, and men have always died for justice for men. Because men's rights are worth that, right? Because men are worth that.

"I don't want to die," she whispers, rubbing her gaunt face with trembling fingers. "I've just begun to live."

Blasted by some as emotional blackmail, praised by others as Gandhi-inspired passive resistance, the "Women's Fast for Justice" has become a controversial part of the crucial Illinois ERA ratification battle.

On the eighth day of the fast, a group of elderly women stood in front of the feminists, ripped the wrappers from a dozen Milky Ways and chomped away. On the 10th day, several men brought a sumptuous meal into the rotunda and dined several feet from the fasting women.

On the 14th day, black activist Dick Gregory arrived to offer tips on fasting. One of the things he suggested was enemas.

"He recommends you do it every day," says Johnson. "I do it once in a while. That's the most unpleasant thing, though I must admit I've gotten it down to a science. I tell you, I never thought I'd figure it out the first time and now, it's like brushing your teeth. We call it the Big E."

The hunger strikers occupy six rooms at the Ramada Inn, paid for by the National Organization for Women. Volunteers from NOW show up several times a week to wash and iron the fasters' clothes. Three women nonfasters help the seven dress and bathe, since the fasters are too weak to care for themselves. This is the hardest part, they say: being independent women and yet having to rely on someone else to help them to the toilet.

Their rooms are dingy, with green- and blue-striped wallpaper and thick, pea-green shag carpeting that squishes underfoot. Most of the women have taped newspaper over the air ducts, because the air conditioning comes on full blast during the night. Fasting has heightened their senses; they are more sensitive to the cold. Their rooms face the back of the kitchen, and the smell of fried fish wafts through the summer night. Next door is a huge restaurant with a neon sign: SMORGASBORD.

"All the books you read about fasting say that after a certain time you're not hungry anymore," Johnson says. "That's a lie."

Has anyone been tempted to make a Twinkie run during the night?

"Absolutely not," she says. "There's not even a thought of that. This is just the most dedicated bunch of women. Not one person has thought of stopping."

The phone rings. It's a woman from NOW calling to say they've located two reclining wheelchairs for Sonia Johnson and her roommate, 43-year-old Shirley Wallace, who fainted at Johnson's side today in the hospital. Both women will continue their protest in a supine position.

Sonia Johnson says the fast is not a publicity stunt. "What we're doing is making women's deprivation visible," she says. "You give them something they can see. Their hearts are going to be touched by that."

Messages and telegrams have been coming in from all over the world, but not all of them supportive. "One of them was addressed, 'M-y S-ewer Sonia' Get it? Ms.? They're always anonymous and always in block letters," Johnson says. " 'Why don't you pick yourself up out of the slime and go take a bath.' " Another letter read, "If you want to kill yourself, it's a free country." "Death to the ERA Sluts" was another.

Anyone who says the fast is extremist is "ignorant of history," she says. "Look at any successful civil rights movement in the history of the world and you will see that these are the sorts of things that are done. It's the recipe for justice. They might say it's too late, but I have a feeling they won't say it's too little." She looks pained. "Oh, please don't say it's too little."

On the surface, it seems that Johnson has given up a lot for the ERA. She says it's not true. "Being excommunicated was the best thing that ever happened to me in my whole life," she says. "I'm so grateful for that. It was like being let out of a box. You couldn't have told me that at the time, but it was absolutely the most liberating thing."

She is divorced and the mother of four children. She says there is little chance that she will remarry. "It's probably really unrealistic for me to think there's a man out there who'd be interested in a woman who's as feminist as I am. I mean, whose whole life, every waking breath, every single atom in my body, is directed toward that. I just don't know a man of that caliber . . . Maybe if I were younger and beautiful."

Does she feel unattractive?

"Of course. This is the age at which men leave their wives. All men leave their wives at this age because they become what America says we must never become, which is middle-aged and not beautiful. We are really outcasts of society. Younger men are considerably more reasonable, but they're much less seasoned. Younger men have been sexually interested in me, and I've associated with some of them. But it's not necessary because one of the wonderful things I've discovered is that I'm quite enough by myself. I don't need anyone to make me whole, I am whole."

On the night table is a book. It's "Dracula" by Bram Stoker. Johnson picks it up and sighs.

"I think sex is greatly overrated."

Preparation

Zoe Ann Ananda, a 33-year-old bookstore owner from Newport Beach, Calif., is sitting in her room dreaming about chocolate-chip cookies. And Suzie-Q's. She is a large woman, with thick glasses and black hair pulled back in a ponytail.

"Sonia called in April. She said, 'How does a fast sound?' I said, 'Great, I'll be there,' and then I hung up the phone and procrastinated and got nervous and got sick to my stomach for three weeks and ate like an absolute maniac and smoked up a storm until it was time to quit smoking, and then I quit eating and here I am."

She catches her breath. "My mind--the clarity I've been told comes with fasting. I'm absolutely amazed."

But Ananda says she isn't willing to lay down her life for the ERA. "Oh, hell no," she says. "Of course not."

The "Women's Fast for Justice," she says, "has very little to do with the ERA. I'm not here to change people's minds. I couldn't give a ----. People either are for it or against it and I've got nothing to do with that at all. My overall agenda was to tell all the despondent that there's still hope. All the pro-ERA glum-sets out there who thought it was all over, and I having been one of them. I'm telling those people to get up off your seats. It's not over.

"My covert agenda is a whole different thing. I really feel we are on the dawning of a new age. It's going to be the age of womanhood as it was 6,000 years ago. We are going to bring the moon back to its tidal role. Fecundity. Fertility. The Earth. The ocean. The animals. The air. If we could save this place before someone blows it up. I had to put my body down for 40 days to get ready. For me, it's a highly spiritual movement."

Mary Ann Beall agrees. The Falls Church, Va., woman says, "It was something I had to do. I'd say it was a religious call."

Beall is an experienced faster. To protest the Vietnam war, she once went without food for 33 days. "It's not something you embark on lightly. So far I've been bearing up rather well. I just feel generally weak," she says, sitting on her bed nursing a migraine headache.

To relieve the boredom, the women watch television, read "The Miracle of Fasting," write letters, talk on the phone and meditate together twice a day.

"Those of us who are fasters find reading novels very difficult under the circumstances," says Beall. It's the constant references to food. "You'd be amazed at how much time authors devote to talking about food," she says, shaking her head.

"We think about food incessantly," says Dina Bachelor, 40, from Los Angeles. "We have concocted, in the greatest culinary detail, the most sumptuous meals that anybody ever dreamed of. It finally got to the point where I, for one, was going out of my mind. I had to go into the bathroom and sit down and say, 'Look, this is 40, 45 days out of your life. You're going to survive it. Then I had to come back in the room and say, 'Please don't continue to talk about food.' "

Bachelor, Ananda and Maureen Fiedler, a 39-year-old Sister of Mercy from Washington, are relaxing in their rooms after a long day in the rotunda. Mary Barnes, a 30-year-old Raleigh, N.C., woman, is sleeping in her room. She's been having very aggressive dreams, the women say. Fighting her way out of strange places with a broom.

"This is not something I wanted to do," says Fiedler, an emotional woman with a halo of blond curls. "I came to it kicking and screaming the whole way." But she's been lobbying for the ERA for the past four years, and as a Christian woman she says, "I believe that the gospel calls us . . ."

Fiedler leaves the room to speak with one of the nonfasting women, then returns to say there won't be a 7 p.m. meeting. Zoe Ann Ananda, sitting in the corner, mumbles, "Why wasn't I allowed to vote?"

"Well, Shirley and Sonia won't be able to come," says Fiedler.

Ananda gives her a petulant look.

"Fasting has raised people's irritability levels," says Fiedler. "There have been some real differences of opinion."

One of the arguments was over having a doctor. Ananda and Bachelor have elected not to work with the "traditional, patriarchal" physician. "I mean the first thing he wanted to do to Sonia today was give her glucose," says Ananda, eyes flashing with anger. "I've been told that can kill you after a 20-day fast."

All the women are keeping journals, which they hope to turn into magazine articles or lectures. Dina Bachelor--co-owner of a lingerie store--says she has a producer friend who is interested in making a film on the fasters.

"Brushing your teeth is the exciting high point of the day," says Fiedler, and laughs.

And what has the fast accomplished?

"It's done several things," says Fiedler. "It has galvanized pro-ERA forces, certainly in the state of Illinois and in much degree around the country because now people are actively concerned about these seven women as well as the issue. I think they're saying, 'Gosh, if seven women would do this, maybe there's still a chance. Maybe I ought to get off my duff and do something.' "

Asked if it was too little, too late, Dina Bachelor looked up from her water glass. "Truthfully? Yeah."

Into the Fray

Tuesday, the 22nd day, begins like every other. The women rest in their rooms until it's time to dress in white pants and shirts or dresses, drape a purple sash across their bosoms and climb into the Gloriamobile, decorated with green-and-white ERA YES stickers. Mary Barnes, shivering in the rain, sits in a wheelchair, waiting to be carried into the van.

"Last night I dreamed about a hot dog," she says.

More than 1,500 demonstrators, pro and con, have filled the marble rotunda of the state house, spilling over into the halls. The chants echo through the building. The noise is deafening.

The pro-ERA forces join hands and begin to sway, chanting, We will never give up. We will never give up. We will never give in. We will never give in. The stop-ERA group breaks into song: "God Bless America." The pro-ERA forces retaliate with "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Upstairs, in a crowded committee hearing room, Phyllis Schlafly, leader of the anti-ERA movement, testifies against the amendment. NOW president Eleanor Smeal speaks for it.

In the rotunda, Sonia Johnson--eyes closed, hands clasped--rests in a reclining wheelchair.