It turns out that the Equal Rights Amendment isn't going to go away after all. Three members of Congress acting on behalf of the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues, have announced that they will reintroduce the amendment in Congress, beginning the ratification process all over again, should it fail to win passage in the three states it needs by the June 30 deadline.
ERA backers in and out of Congress vowed to make support of ERA an issue in the November campaigns of people running for Congress and state offices. If you consider the fact that the National Organization for Women has raised millions in the last few months for the ERA ratification drive, and if you consider the fact that polls are now showing the emergence of a woman's voting block and an overwhelming support for ERA, then that promise takes on meaning.
A new drive for ratification won't be easy, but in the 10 years since it was passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification, ERA's backers have developed a degree of political expertise that makes them much more of a force to contend with than they were a few years ago.
"The growing degree of political sophistication that has been developed will continue in pursuit of the new amendment," said Rep. Margaret Heckler (R-Mass.), cochairman of the congressional caucus, which now has more than 80 members.
Among them is Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), who is head of the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution to which the amendment would be referred. Edwards made the point that "just a handful of legislators" are blocking the amendment's passage in states such as Florida, Illinois and Oklahoma. Part of the congressional strategy involves getting members of Congress to support a letter urging legislators in unratified states to vote for the amendment.
"The main thing is to communicate to the state legislators that we are going to tough it out," said Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.). The amendment is ready to be reintroduced, she said, and "if it will send little tremors through the members of Congress who thought they'd gotten rid of the issue, so be it."
An amendment requires a two-thirds vote from both houses before it can be sent to the states, and while it is unlikely that hearings could be held and votes taken on the amendment before the November elections, its reintroduction could force every congressional and senatorial candidate to take a public stand on it. It would mark the first time that congressional and senatorial candidates have had to confront the issue since an identifiable women's vote has emerged.
"It's a way for congresspeople who are standing for election to state where they stand on women's rights," said Eleanor Smeal, president of NOW, who is currently in Florida leading the effort to win ratification in that state legislature. "We will put as many people on the line as we can in the congressional elections.
"There's a certain type of legislator who is saying come June 30, we won't have to deal with this again," said Smeal. "We have been saying repeatedly it's not over with until we have equality under the Constitution. They don't see the women's movement as a continuous thing. There's this feeling that it's something being imposed on them that will lift come June 30.
"They can't go on forever ignoring the changed reality of women's position," she said. "Time is on our side."
So, she believes, is the economy, which is driving more and more women into the job market and labor force, where they encounter the wage gap and job discrimination. "Women looking for jobs are even more for it," she said.
NOW was able to raise $1.3 million dollars last month alone for a campaign that the media has written off as hopeless. That is more than the political action committees and executives of the American Telephone and Telegraph company spent on the entire 1980 federal elections, and AT&T spent twice as much as any of the other corporate PACs. It is more than the PACs of three defense contractors spent on the elections, put together. It is roughly half what the gun lobby spent in a year that included a presidential campaign.
It is proof that the women's movement is capable of raising significant amounts of money for political causes. If ERA is not ratified by June 30, its supporters now know how to spend it.