Call it pilot error, blame it on a design flaw or a heat-seeking missile, but the Equal Rights Amendment has gone down in flames.

Except for a rally here and some snickering there, it went largely uncommemorated, that June 30 crash following 10 years of lumbering down the runway. Maybe this was because ERA pros denied there was any more than a temporary scheduling problem, and ERA cons feared being accused of sabotage or, worse, bad taste if they danced around the smoking wreckage.

And nobody, but nobody, was telling the men's side of it. Time magazine gives its cover and nine full pages of this week's issue to "American Women," but one looks in vain for a history of the male psyche during those trying years, for a mention of just how worried men are that not only an ERA but an era may have ended.

We had a big investment in feminism, a lot of work and struggle.

Maybe some of us didn't manage to come a long way, baby, but, hey, little steps for little feet. Or the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Or something like that.

In any case, the last 10 years have been tough.

There seemed to be some trick to mastering feminism. Well, not mastering it. Let's keep it non-gender-specific here--this is the age in which non-sexist vocabulary has become so important that in 1975 even the Ku Klux Klan changed "klansman" to "klanperson," according to the Chicago Sun-Times. That's to show you how deep this stuff goes in this country.

At any rate, from the male point of view, there seemed to be some knack we didn't have. It was like learning how to enjoy, say, tofu or the 55 mph speed limit.

Not that it was a question of enjoying it, of course. This was serious business. Still, it was hard getting the hang of it, like when you work out on a speed bag for the first time.

It wasn't the basic questions such as equal pay for equal work or women's rights to handle their own finances. The only men who questioned those seemed to be retired FBI agents and the kind of preachers who told you to put your hands on the radio.

We bought the basic feminist model. It was the options we had a hard time understanding.

Our ignorance, as enthusiasts for feminism, seemed to be greatest when it came to love, which it kept coming to, politics or no.

Early on in the movement, we figured that all the old hypocrisy and bewilderment of courtship was over. No more hearts and flowers, none of that odyssey through calls, cards, candy, caresses, caramba. No more putting them on pedestals, no more of that medieval Eleanor-of-Aquitaine stuff, the knights in shining armor. Terrific! At last we'd have lovemaking with no "feminine mystique," as Betty Friedan called it. Erica Jong put it in writing in "Fear of Flying," with the famous "zipless" encounter. Instant passion. You wouldn't even have to change after the rugby game, just show up at her place with a bag of burgers and let nature take its course, as long as it took it in time for the pre-season Canadian water polo on cable TV. Afterwards, you'd punch each other in the arms and pour champagne over your heads.


The answer came back loud and clear: N-O, no, Mr. Man.

This was when we found out that we were supposed to be sensitive. We were afraid to show our feelings, with which we weren't in touch, anyway. This was a surprise to men who'd spent time in the infantry, or hanging around in low-rent bars, listening to yet another recitation of a Dear John letter, or having to read the awful poetry that got circulated through the barracks every year. " 'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the Corps," the woeful epic would always begin.

So, set 'em up, Joe, I've got a little story I think you should know.

But the women wouldn't take our word for it. This led to the major event in men's history (a little-known but promising field of study) during the mid-1970s: The Great Weep.

Women told us we didn't have the guts to cry. We rose to the challenge. Crying in public, crying in private. Boasting how we'd cried at the movies, particularly those movies that starred, say, Alan Alda or other examples of the The Feminist-Approved New Man, who was sort of a combination of Tiny Tim and Bella Abzug.

Anyhow, the crying wasn't hard, it turned out. If women could do it on cue, so could men, except that women, of course, were too tough and savvy to be turned to jelly by it, the way men had always been.

And we learned to share and care, not scare and dare. And we hugged until we looked like slow-motion replays of the Greco-Roman wrestling finals. And we kissed. Here, of course, we were led by those long-term battlers for social change, the Hell's Angels, who had long been fond of grinding great wet kisses into each others' hairy faces on any occasion at all, the more public the better.

Some men did not cultivate the sensitive and emotional image. These were the gays, who were the only men in America who could wear studded leather jackets, construction helmets, chaps and lumberjack shirts and not be labeled as likely suspects by the Chauvinist Patrol.

Meanwhile, men's fashion mandated mass blow-drying of hair and talking about creme rinses and conditioners, activities formerly thought to be the sole province of femininity (not to be confused with feminism). We wore bell-bottoms, neck chains and Qiana body shirts. We were cute, even when we were mad.

The whole point of women's fashion in this era seemed to be to ensure that no one would say such a thing about women.

Indeed, there was little cuteness to be found. A truly piquant pout could not be achieved without lipstick, and how could a woman stamp a little foot clad in one of those gigantic waffle-stomping alpine hiking boots so popular a decade ago?

The pert uplift that had marked the Doris Days and Debbie Reynoldses of the male-supremacist '50s was lost with considerable gravity (at an accelerating velocity of 32.17 feet per second per second in fact) the instant that women removed those bras they were said to have burned at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City in 1969. (Later reports had the bras being thrown away, but the incendiary image stuck.)

Said a headline in this newspaper: "Beneath Those Charred Bras Revolution Smolders." Men did not complain, though they were puzzled at the dirty looks they got when they applauded.

Ah, the paradoxes. Feminism was the big double bind, it was both the rock and the hard place, with men in the middle.

In 1976, long after men had learned not to refer to the "fairer" or "gentler" sex, Karen DeCrow, then president of the National Organization for Women, told a meeting that the women's movement would cut crime because "many crimes are committed by men on a macho trip." Imagine men's confusion, then, when Dr. Freda Adler, of Rutgers, announced to the same meeting that women's rates of increase for virtually every major crime were larger than those of men! Foolish was the man who dared to say that this trend was either a good or a bad thing.

Or the man who believed that since women lived so much longer than men, they'd start paying more into pension plans--or, if not, that men could start paying as little as women for car insurance. And all of us learned that neither of the following statements was correct:

1. You do that as well as a man.

2. You don't do that as well as a man.

The confusion continued with role models. Remember "role models"? Women had "a cross between a corporation lawyer, an architect, a test pilot, a brain surgeon and a lieutenant on the police force," according to a newspaper columnist in 1976.

Since those had already been taken, men had a cross between Phil Donahue, Dr. Spock, Misterogers and Kermit the Frog--but only for a brief and glorious moment.

Storm clouds were gathering. Reactionary forces were at work. Ten years after we thought that John Wayne and Ernest Hemingway were gone for good, being exemplars of the discredited "hairy-chested" school, we now have a pantheon which features Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. And a whole new crop of leaders who weren't afraid to stand up and fight: Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher.

These forces have corrupted women, too, destroying unisex ideals with all the insidiousness of visible panty line under man-tailored trousers. What's with this Laura Ashley look, with those demure print dresses? And what about the proliferation of funny-underwear stores, not just Frederick's of Hollywood and Victoria's Secret with their mail order business, but right here in Georgetown, purveying lace and sheerness and tantalization?

Is there some plot to lure us back to the families we've been leaving in record numbers? Is it true that women are deciding that having children is actually as meaningful as having meaningful dialogues or meaningful business lunches? Will children qualify as "significant others"?

The ERA may have failed, but it isn't because men didn't help. We can look back at polls showing that we often supported it more than women did. Midge Decter, long a foe of feminism, may say that men nowadays are "neurasthenic, narcissistic, they're running all the time and greasing their bodies and doing this, that and the other thing to go through substitute motions of manliness." But is that anything that feminists haven't done? We can note with pride that the most adroit and charismatic national politician to come out of the fight for women's rights was not a man but a woman--Phyllis Schlafly.

We remain confused. Maybe it's the male equivalent of what Ms. magazine calls "math anxiety" among women. We remain that 49 percent who never seem to get the word. We couldn't outsmart feminists, we admit that. Is it just possible that through some unintentional error, some mere slip, some hapless oversight, we succeeded in outdumbing them?