There's a story they tell here about the Equal Rights AmendR ment. George Washington comes back from the grave and wanders into the capitol just in time to hear a legislative committee discuss the controversial measure.

"What's that?" he cries, upon hearing that the matter would guarantee equal rights to women. "The next thing you know you'll be letting them vote."

The Constitution that Washington helped write made no specific reference to the rights of women, and therein lies the Virginia dilemma. Here in a state that prides itself on its long list of founding fathers, any proposal to alter the founders' work is viewed as sacrilegious. If the Constitution was good enough for Gen. Washington, legislators here say, why change it now?

Still, that is only part of the reason Virginia has refused for nine years to ratify a measure that has won the approval of 35 other state legislatures. Regardless of whether or not the state was predisposed against ERA, there is also a strong sentiment here that those lobbying on its behalf over the years did as much to harm their cause as to promote it.

"There has been so much adverse history," says leading lobbyist Bill Thomas, remembering the arrests and confrontations of past years. "I think they (ERA supporters) have overcome that, but a lot of people still have hard feelings."

The ERA would have faced severe difficulties in Virginia even under the best of conditions. Legislators here, steeped in the state's agrarian values, have found almost as many reasons to oppose it as there are leaves on a tobacco plant: It would allow women to be drafted, let federal courts tell Virginia how its laws should be interpreted, force the Virginia Military Institute to admit women, to name a few.

And those are the nonemotional arguments. There are also the arguments that approval of the ERA would lead to sexually integrated public restrooms, the demise of the family and marriages between homosexuals.

Formidable opposition, yes. But insurmountable? Not necessarily. In many ways, the pro-ERA movement in Virginia has been programmed for problems.

Like any popular movement, it has suffered from a lack of cohesive organization and shared goals. Which was more important, supporters asked one another: To pass the amendment or to make the point that women will no longer accept male domination? In the end they couldn't agree, leaving some ERA supporters to lobby within the established structure and others to employ the kind of confrontational politics that Virginia's gentlemen legislators abhor.

Some pro-ERA leaders suggested a few years ago that supporters put aside their blue jeans and recruit former beauty queens in an effort to show legislative leaders that even the state's so-called "ladies" favor the measure. But other supporters rejected that idea, preferring the more rough-and-tumble methods that have worked in other states.

"It's very hard to win in Virginia with confrontation politics," says one lobbyist. "People just don't like it."

While the pro-ERA forces have toned down a great deal in recent years, the age of confrontation has still not passed. House majority leader Thomas Moss (D-Norfolk) is still angry about a statement ERA lobbyist and former Arlington-Alexandria delegate Elise B. Heinz made to a Norfolk newspaper shortly before the most recent ERA vote: that many liberal House members "don't think Tom has any principles." That statement only served to reinforce Moss' opposition to her cause, his friends say.

Then there were the political gaffes of ERA backers. Rather than hold off a decision on the matter until they had built their coalition, supporters of the measure repeatedly forced committee votes that almost invariably failed. That had the effect of galvanizing the opposition, as members took public positions on ERA that private political horse-trading could not reverse later.

"You can't make a deal on something that people have campaigned on for years," says Del. Mary Marshall (D-Arlington), an ERA supporter. "There are some folks here who would like to change and can't figure out how to do it."

Successful threats against ERA opponents at the polls might have forced some anti-ERA legislators to revise their thinking, but that strategy was limited at best. Instead of targeting ERA's leading opponents in elections, supporters focused their funds and their efforts on freshmen delegates Larry Pratt and John Buckley, both Fairfax Republicans. Though the men had been vocal opponents of the measure, their defeats did little to advance ERA on the House floor.

"I regret to have to say it, but the ERA movement unconsciously became a captive of the feminine stereotypes created by a male-dominated society," says Paul Goldman, a liberal Democratic strategist. "In order to prove their own independence from male domination, many supporters abandoned pragmatic politics because they were afraid that they would be accused of caving in to the male political system."

Even now, ERA's most vocal supporters don't concede defeat. But the more pragmatic among them have begun to look elsewhere for the last three states needed for ratification. Says former Fairfax Democratic chairman Emilie Miller, "It looks like, for this year, it's pretty much a dead issue here."