Songs and speeches filled Constitution Hall last night as embers of the burnt dream of the Equal Rights Amendment were used to fire a new coalition of women's organizations who perceived July 1 not as the day after defeat, but the first day of a new era. Between the lessons of yesterday, and an impatience for tomorrow, a new resolve was evident in speeches by Mary Purcell, Dorothy Height and Bella Abzug. Songwriter Margie Adam was direct and optimistic in her closing set.

But when the speeches were done, when the hearts were open, it was Sweet Honey in the Rock that most eloquently captured the range of roles and communal interests and political responsibilities that has emerged around women's rights. The five women in Sweet Honey are all astounding singers individually, but it's their heart-rending a capella harmonies that elevate them to a special place as one of the most powerful vocal ensembles in America today. From a whisper to a scream, they perpetuate the most striking aspects of church and street-corner singing.

Last night, Sweet Honey took its presentation one step further, stringing its songs together with moving poems, always looking at themselves as mothers, protectors, lovers, teachers, friends. The most telling moment came on June Jordan's "Poem for 10,000 South African Women," half-spoken, half-sung, wholly engaging and totally devastating in its emotional impact. Sweet Honey sounded as strong as sisterhood itself.