In a rather brilliant political move, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives made its first order of business the reintroduction of the Equal Rights Amendment. HJ Res. 1, as the joint resolution will be known, spells serious trouble for Republicans, who are having enough trouble with women voters without the Democrats lobbing ERA at them.

After spending a year rooting that the gender gap showing up in the polls would disappear like Kohoutek, the Republicans got the bad news in a 12-page memo prepared by Ronald H. Hinckley, a special assistant in the White House Office of Planning and Evaluation. He concluded that women have a far lower opinion of President Reagan than men do, that a gender gap had helped Democrats in the November election and that it "could prove dangerous for Republicans in 1984."

Hinckley, like other analysts, blamed the gender gap on a number of factors, including the way women perceived their self-interests to be served, their judgment of political morality, their economic vulnerabilities, and the perception of Reagan's economic, budgetary, foreign and defense policies. Hinckley also singled out the "tremendous increase" in families headed by women, an economically vulnerable group particularly alienated from Reagan, "whose image and policies they find personally threatening."

There was no specific mention of the ERA in the Hinckley report. But unlike his advisers, who have steadfastly played down the importance of ERA as well as the gender gap, Reagan acknowledged in an interview in U.S. News and World Report last October that it has been costly. Asked about what was causing the gender gap, Reagan replied:

"I have a hunch that part of it's been inspired by the ERA movement. I had very few opportunities to talk with some of those people. My belief that a constitutional amendment was not the best solution to their problem--they translated that into prejudice against women."

The ERA was introduced in the House on Monday with 222 sponsors. "They were not hard to get," says Judy Goldsmith, president of the National Organization for Women. "There were a number of politicians who looked at what happened in November and said there's a message coming through. There's clearly a growth of women as a political force in this country we'd better pay attention to."

ERA needs 290 votes to be passed in the House, and 67 in the Senate, where it is going to be introduced on the first legislative work day by Sens. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) and Robert Packwood (R-Ore.) It will be referred to the subcommittee on the constitution, which is chaired by Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who opposes ERA. Hearings are supposed to be held in the House this year, and if the amendment should pass there, its fate would be up to the Republican-controlled Senate.

ERA's proponents are not the political neophytes who fought the good fight in the '70s. "We know what to do this time," says Goldsmith. "We know that the focus of it has to be economic."

And economic conditions are such that women can be expected to respond to the economic arguments in favor of ERA as never before. Polls have repeatedly shown that support for ERA is greatest among working women, a group that has become politicized by what they find when they enter the work force. Women are now being hit by unemployment at a slightly higher rate than men. Working women whose husbands have been laid off in steel and auto factories are finding that their salaries are keeping the family off welfare. Other women are having to go to work to support their families in hard times.

Women may not yet have equality in the Constitution, but they have an equal voice at the polls, and they have demonstrated the will to use it. Politicians need only to look to Michigan, where an outspoken ERA opponent was soundly defeated by the women's vote in the race for governor, to see how costly highly visible opposition to the amendment can be. For the Republican Party, which took ERA out of its platform in 1980, the treatment of the amendment in Congress is likely to become the most highly visible symbol of what the party under Reagan's leadership has to offer women voters. If the Republicans defeat the amendment, the party can expect to find itself facing a gender gulf instead of a gender gap.