The drive for the Equal Rights Amendment, buried temporarily in the backrooms of a few state legislatures, has forever changed American politics. Never before have so many women raised so much money, been so active in lobbying and campaigning and learned so much about politics as they have during the past two years, as they fought down to the wire for a constitutional amendment granting them equality with men. In the end, denied that equality by predominantly male legislatures in Florida, Oklahoma, Virginia, Illinois and North Carolina, they have resolved to take the fight for women's rights into Congress and state legislatures and to replace legislators who vote against women with legislators who will vote for them.
It is a historic turning point in the women's movement, which has until recently followed a course charted shortly after suffrage was won, when women decided to concentrate on lobbying and educating rather than campaigning and running. The National Organization for Women, which led the fight for ERA's ratification, yesterday announced it intends to become an independent political force that will move women and their interests from the outside to the inside of politics. Everything suggests that NOW and other women's organizations will succeed.
NOW, the largest feminist organization, has put together a political machine that ought to be the envy of the Democratic Party and a major worry for the Republican Party, which has publicly identified itself as against the ERA. This year NOW had 300 full-time paid field workers, 6,700 full-time volunteers, 750 phone banks, and was raising $1 million a month for a cause that most viewed as lost. Its membership has grown from 100,000 when Reagan was elected to 180,000 now.
NOW's machinery is immediately shifting gears, according to its president Eleanor Smeal, and moving into electoral politics. The shift will start with Florida where 22 state senators voted against ERA, in effect killing it nationally, despite polls that showed overwhelming support for it. Because of redistricting, the entire Florida senate has to stand for re-election in November. With the ERA vote less than five days old, NOW has 11 people, including seven women, ready to run against the 22 senate ERA opponents.
House member Linda Cox, who was the founder and first president of NOW in Broward County, agreed to run against senate minority leader James Scott, who voted against ERA, if NOW could raise a $100,000 campaign chest. The organization received $75,000 in pledges in three days. Cox says she is "overwhelmed" at the response from all over the country. "People are angry, insulted and indignant that ERA was not passed. I think we are going to see an incredible groundswell in the November elections . . . I have conservative Republicans contributing to my campaign because of ERA. Ordinarily we're poles apart."
"ERA is the issue around which everything else revolves," says Kathy Bonk, NOW's media coordinator. "Those men are no longer going to be able to sit there and vote on our rights."
Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), who along with more than 100 cosponsors will reintroduce ERA in the House on July 14, says that "midstream women" have moved into the women's rights movement "in a big way." Now, she says, women's organizations will be holding politicians accountable and she believes women will have to start putting women's issues before party loyalty.
Pollster Louis Harris believes that the women's movement will have the same impact on politics in this decade that the labor movement had in the '30s. He points to the emerging difference between the way men and women view political parties and a host of key voting issues. But the fundamental issue, he says, is that women are demanding that the rest of society "recognize their identity as they think it ought to be." It goes beyond women wanting peace over war simply because they fear harm to their husbands or sons, he says. "Women feel that men are more bloodthirsty, more chauvinistic and tend to lose their heads, and that they women are wiser and know better and nobody gives them much credit for that."
Harris believes, as do a number of women who fought for the ERA, that it was defeated because men never took women and women's issues seriously. "I think the women's groups are going to have to get out and prove they can deliver at the polls," he says.
This is precisely what they are planning to do, beginning this November. It may take years to feel the impact, but American politics, dominated by business interests and men, never will be the same.