"Here come the wheelchairs," someone shouted. The television lights blazed. The banners were unfurled. Then, from around the corner, right after the priest and the man with the cowboy hat, Sonia Johnson, looking pale and weak in her white pantsuit and purple sash, appeared.
Three dozen women, wearing ERA stickers, carrying flowers and bread and placards, waited for Sonia Johnson to arrive in the United Airlines lounge at National Airport yesterday afternoon. She and two other women who fasted for 37 days in Springfield, Ill., in support of the Equal Rights Amendment were coming home after the legislation was defeated by Illinois lawmakers.
Harry Mercier didn't understand what all the ruckus was about.
The 60-year-old contractor from Potomac was sitting in the terminal, waiting to meet his daughter, who was flying in from Chicago on the same flight.
"Somebody starvin' to death or somethin'?" he wondered. "I say anybody starving to death for anything is crazy."
The crowd cheered as several of the women rushed to hug the 46-year-old Johnson, of Sterling Park, who was excommunicated from the Mormon Church in 1979 for her pro-ERA stand. Lowered into a wheelchair, Johnson said, "I feel like E.T. Home. Home."
Breaking into tears, the frizzy-haired feminist said she was "overwhelmed" by the reception. Then she announced that she will seek the presidency of the National Organization for Women.
"Of course, I have to walk before I run," she quipped as a supporter wheeled her to the podium for a prearranged news conference.
Yes, she said, she'd do it again. And no, she insisted, the hunger strike did not fail. It was, she said, a success even though the ERA now is doomed. "I consider the fast a success because it shows that ordinary women can do extraordinary things. We're much greater than we dreamed. The women's movement has just begun."
Blue eyes flashing, Johnson tensed her fist in anger. The hunger strikers learned a lesson, she said. "We know that men are never going to represent us in the legislatures of this country. That is like asking the slaveholders to represent the slaves."
Her voice rising, Johnson also declared that she will no longer work "or raise one penny" for any male political candidate in the country, vowing to place her support solely behind feminist women.
Maureen Fiedler, a 39-year-old Sister of Mercy from Washington, received the biggest applause when she called President Reagan "the greatest enemy of women in this country." Fiedler said she would stop asking for her rights. "We're going to take them," she shouted to more cheers.
One elderly woman, trying to use the telephone nearby, seemed perplexed by the demonstration. Her finger stuck in her ear, she shrieked into the receiver, "Got a big bunch of people whooping it up over here about the ERA."
Reporters pressed Johnson for details of the fast. Like what was the first thing she ate?
"An egg," she replied. "I have dreamed of eggs in every position." The first meal in more than four weeks "brought tears to my eyes," she said. The author of "From Housewife to Heretic" has shrunk from 122 pounds to 99.
There was the usual question about Phyllis Schlafly. No, Johnson said, she has not been invited to the stop-ERA activists' "Over the Rainbow" party to celebrate the ERA's defeat, although she was thinking about crashing.
Mary Ann Beall, a Falls Church housewife who joined Johnson in the fast, was still in Springfield, hospitalized after one of her lungs collapsed. She has undergone surgery twice, according to Johnson. Joining Johnson and Fiedler at the press conference was hunger striker Mary Barnes, a 30-year-old Raleigh, N.C., housewife.
One by one, the television lights were turned off, and soon Sonia Johnson was looking for her ride home.
Sitting in the next lounge, a 35-year-old woman from Philadelphia who works for NOW did not join in the reception. "I hate to say she's riding on the coattails of her fast to win the NOW presidency, but that's my feeling."
Kathy Kinney, 22, was waiting for a plane to take her back home to Knoxville, Tenn. She shook her head, looking bored. The ERA? "I thought it's been dead for a long time," she sighed.