CHARLES E. CURRY, chairman of the Home Savings Association in Kansas City, Mo., decided two years ago that it was time to do something about the Equal Rights Amendment. It had been defeated in Missouri in previous yers, but by 1978 the state legislature wasn't even taking it seriously enough to vote on it.
"Several businessmen in Kansas City felt the same way, that it was something we should stand up and be counted on," says Curry. They gave a dinner in March of 1979 which was attended by several hundred Missouri businessmen who were interested in getting the amendment passed. Curry's efforts ultimately provided inspiration for the National Business Council on the ERA, which now includes about 90 top-level corporate executives. The idea behind the council, which is sponsored by the league of Women Voters, is to use the clout of the American business community in the ERA drive by having corporate executives become directly involved in lobbying state legislators in states where ERA has not been ratified.
"It's helpful to have some support in addition to women's groups" says Curry. And, he says, it is also helpful to have businessmen lobbying on behalf of ERA because that defuses the idea that business is adamantly against the amendment because it could force employers to pay women the same as men.
"We found there was less inclination to laugh off the issue after we got a wider constituency," says Curry. He says there are now a couple of dozen businessmen in Kansas City and St. Louis who lobbied the legislature, wrote letters, telephoned and, in particular, visited the legislature at the time hearings came up. "ERA did become a crucial issue this year," he says, although once again it was defeated.
The council was formed after a number of pro-ERA organizations met in Washington last summer to examine where the ratification drive was going. The groups realized that they had overlooked possible support in the business community and agreed that the League should coordinate efforts to find it. The council was set up this past winter, with the leadership of William Agee, chairman and chief executive officer of the Bendix Corp., entertainer Polly Bergen, a director of the Singer Co., and Coy G. Eklund, president of Equitable Life.
"Business was the missing link," says Lois Harrison, a director of the League and head of its ERA drive. "Labor was always with us, [as were] women's groups and religious groups.
"The ERA vote came up very suddenly in Georgia a few weeks ago. We had no hope of winning, but we called the president of Rich's department store, the largest department store in Atlanta, and he personally called two legislators and asked them as a personal favor to vote yes and they did.
"This was proof to us that businessmen do have clout with legislatures and many of them are now willing to use it for this issue. We are asking businessmen to help in Illinois, which is the next state to take up the issue," says Harrison.
"I think businessmen are beginning to see what women in the work force mean. For instance, the banking industry is beginning to realize they can't give mortgages without two-income families. The automobile industry is realizing that it takes a two-income family to buy the second car. The same thing is happening in big appliances, and in the vacation industry. I think that's why business is willing to work with the League for ratification."
President Carter invited some 150 business leaders and heads of women's organizations to a briefing on the ERA last week at which he remarked that as recently as two years ago it would not have been possible "to get this many business leaders to play an active role in passing the Equal Rights Amendment."
Accusing ERA opponents of "unbelievable deliberate attempts to distort a simple proposition," Carter said "the main obstacle to the ratification. . . . is the allegation that it is only supported by radical kinds of people." The arguments that ERA would legalize homosexuality and abortion and shared restrooms, he said, "can best be knocked down by a person who is known to be sound and committed and balanced and patriotic with a stable family and a good job. These are the kinds of people who must speak out . . ."
Later, the business leaders heard Jack Conway, a director of Atlantic-Richfield, tell them that "ERA is like a glacier running across the whole society. If it's not ratified, the problem is not going to go away. Courts will be jammed by cases," and discriminatory laws will have to be "eliminated piece-meal," he said. "The problems will move into the work force. Women in the work place are going to get equal treatment one way or another."
He, like the president, urged the business leaders to call corporate friends of theirs in states which have not ratified ERA and to enlist their help in lobbying state legislators.
"Tell your business friends to put their names on the line," said Alan Tripp, president of Product Resources International, and a founder of the council. "It won't hurt them. It'll help them."
Earlier this month, Polly Bergan met with about 35 business leaders in Illinois to persuade them to lobby the legislature, which has repeatedly failed to ratify. An ERA vote is expected to come up again in the House, possibly within the next week, and supporters believe that they may be within two votes of the three-fifths majority needed for passage. That would make Illinois the 36th out of the necessary 38 states needed to amend the constitution.
Active ERA supporters in Illinois now include Ronald Grzywinski, chairman of the board of South Shore Bank; Arthur Rubloff of Rubloff Development Corp.; Howard Conant, chairman of Interstate Steel; Angelo Arena, president of Marshall Field: and A. C. Nielsen Jr., chairman of the A. C. Nielsen Co., who gave written testimony to the Judiciary Committee on behalf of the business council.
They are kind of people who could make a difference -- even in Illinois.