On the day the Equal Rights Amendment died, Washington was turned into a political Disneyland. With the wire service schedule as your guide, you could go from the present to the future to the place where Phyllis Schlafly held forth. This place is called The Past.

Ms. Schlafly held a press conference. It was just one event in a day given over to either burying the ERA or praising it. Ms. Schlafly's press conference followed one given by Kathy Wilson of the National Women's Political Caucus and preceded one given by Eleanor Smeal of the National Organization for Women. There was also a rally in a park, a speech by Maureen Reagan (the only member of her family residing in this century), and then, to cap things off, the nighttime Schlafly victory celebration, a masquerade event in which the past came dressed as the future.

For her press conference, Ms. Schlafly chose the Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building. This is a high-ceilinged, ornate room, and Ms. Schlafly stood toward the front of it, flanked by five women. The five others said nothing, which is okay because Ms. Schlafly is quite a show all by herself. Not since Richard Nixon faced the press in California has there been such an exchange of hostility.

Ms. Schlafly, it is clear, hates the press. She blames it for transmitting all sorts of lies, not the least of those being that the ERA is supported by the majority of the American people. This, she assured us, is not true--the polls notwithstanding. "Garbage in, garbage out," she says, dismissing the polls.

As for the press, it stood around her in a semicircle, asking the same questions it has been asking all these years. For all questions, Ms. Schlafly had an answer. She is not afraid for her own safety because she believes in God. (She nevertheless was accompanied by a security guard.) She thinks that the ultimate salvation of American women is not the unneccessary and quite silly ERA, but private enterprise and the economic program of one Ronald Wilson Reagan. He has, she said, brought down the rate of inflation.

Slowly and almost imperceptibly, the circle of reporters closed in on Ms. Schlafly. The guard from the Burns organization did not put his hand on his gun, but his eyes did start to dart around. He seemed confused. Who were these people and why were they so hostile? The questions came with barbs attached: What do you think is the role of women? Are you for equal pay for equal work? What's wrong with women being drafted?

Ms. Schlafly stood her ground, but you could see right there that the fight is not over the ERA at all, but over sexism. Ms. Schlafly stands for sexism, for the notion that women have their place, that they are or ought to be primarily wives and mothers. They have no business with careers until they have done what they were born to do--raise children. (Is it ungentlemanly of me to suggest that if Ms. Schlafly had followed her own advice, the ERA would now be the law of the land?)

It is this notion, the idea that women really are different from men in ways that count--mysteriously different and in some ways inferior--that the struggle for equality is all about. The idea is deeply imbedded in our culture, a part of the self-identity of Schlafly and women like her, and it is this that was being communicated to the press--to the male reporters, certainly, but really to the women reporters. Schlafly was telling them that they had no business being there. They should be at home, raising children.

So at the same time she was claiming victory, she was really staring defeat in the face. The future was facing her, surrounding her, moving in. These were not only reporters but women, working women, some with children, some without--it did not matter. What mattered was having the option, being able to choose, having control over your own life, not to mention your own body.

None of this got settled yesterday. Ms. Schlafly did what she came to do and then went off, first to her other events and then to her party and then, for sure, into the dustbin of history--swept there by the age-old desire to make the most of and control your own life. Schlafly calls this the women's movement. Over the years it's been called freedom.