THE EQUAL RIGHTS Amendment expired in the final stretch, three states short of the finish line. And before the post-mortems begin, it would be well to scotch one myth. The Equal Rights Amendment was never a battle between the sexes, with men having the final say. Ronald Reagan notwithstanding, few men cared much either way. On the contrary, a crucial reason for the ERA's defeat was opposition from women.

Legislators who voted against it could point to their negative mail, which came mainly from women. For them that was excuse enough. Even the polls were deceptive, for they failed to show the dept of feeling on the against side. It would be well to understand why so many women ended up opposing a measure intended for their benefit.

As originally proposed, the Equal Rights Amendment seemed altogether innocuous. Its two dozen words ("Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex") simply summarized a principle accepted by the courts embodied in legislation. The amendment cleared Congress in March 1972, with only eight dissents in the Senate and 24 in the House. Before the year was over, no fewer than 22 state legislatures had ratified the ERA. The 16 others needed for its adoption were expected to follow suit in 1973.

As everyone now knows, however, it did not turn out that way. Over the ensuing five years, only 13 more states added their approval, with Indiana the last, in 1977. Not only that, five of the ratifying states moved to rescind their passage -- an unusual step now facing legal challenge.

And if only five went on record as changing their minds, soundings show that at least as many more would not repeat their ratifications were they to vote today.

In 1978 an embarrassed Congress -- this time with 225 dissenting votes -- gave the amendment 39 more months to muster three more states. But when, this June, Illinois' moderately liberal legislature failed to act favorably, it became clear that the amendment had reached the end of its road. (Anyone inclined to believe that ratification is still possible is invited to identify three candidates for conversion among the 15 holdouts: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia.) Principle apart, the Republicans' repudiation of the ERA can be seen as a refusal to align with a lost cause.

What happened is that early in its course, the ERA lost the innocent status. In fact, this change occurred during the nine months after the amendment had left Congress and while it was winning quick approval from half the necessary states. Stirred by this success, women who had worked for the ERA began to talk as if, quite literaly, it signaled a new era. What began as a request for equal rights merged into the more militant cause of women's liberation. Guarantees purposely left vague in the wording of the amendment were now being discussed in concrete terms.

One such guarantee was that women, no less than men, should be free to choose what to do with whatever migh happen to grow within their bodies. Needless to say, such an interpretation had serious implications. It was not as if women were demanding the right to decide about having their adenoids removed. In addition, much began to be said about what property rights women should be able to claim, either at the breakup of a marriage or even prior to the wedding. Here the hidden message seemed to be that divorce was an eventuality every women could expect.

There was also the whole "Ms." phenomenon, which was part of a more generalized attack on all the disabilities inhering in the double standard. (And at the same time it was easy to imply that the title "Mrs." showed passive acquiescence to a subordinate condition.) Thus the passage of the ERA would be a sign that women were gaining not only legal rights but the power and the sanction to lead lives of their own choosing. Nor could its supporters imagine how any rational woman could object to these goals.

Still, the main impetus for the amendment arose from inequities in employment -- in particular, the obstacles women encountered in entering certain fields, obtaining equal pay, and getting merited promotions. At its simplest, equal rights would mean that fire departments could not refuse to consider a certain application because of the candidate's sex.

But those in the vanguard of the ERA appeared also to be saying that for real emancipation to come about, women must begin filling the positions hitherto held by men. While there were polite murmurings about how other avenues were acceptable, the word was that you had better get out of the house and into something serious. Nor was it legitimate to settle for being a secretary or stewardess; little girls were reprimanded for playing at being nurses.

Given this expanded outlook, the last letter in the ERA came to stand for more than the amendment. It signified an atmosphere and an attitude that could cut across class lines. Women could be miners or state troopers as well as executives and attorneys. To the aim of equality was jointed the spirit of independence.

It was at this point that Phyllis Schafly gave form to a following that in fact was waiting for her. It is too easy to say that those for whom she spoke misunderstood the amendment. Allusions to unisex toilets and frontline combat duty were good for getting attention, but they weren't the central concern. The women who responded to Schlafly were under no illusions about the impetus for the ERA.

More than that, they were aware of how they would be affected, and, at the same time, were hesistant to air their underlying anxieties, at least in a public forum. So instead they spoke as if their chief concern were to preserve the family. But in so doing they were talking about themselves. For the women who felt most threatened by the ERA were housewives -- and their number should not be underestimated even in 1980.

There has been a great deal of talk about how housewives are a disappearing species. Betty Friedan, for example, likes to cite the statistic that among American households only 17 percent remain with a father as the wage earner, the mother a full-time homemaker, and one or more resident children. In fact, the figures tell a different story.

But before examining them, it would be well to realize that this country still has many millions of women for whom caring for a home has been their lifetime calling. Moreover, most of them remember when the vocation of housewife was an honored estate. Some are old enough to recall when on radio and television a woman was asked her occupation, if she answered "housewife" the rafters rang with applause. Now, when asked what they do, they find themselves saying "just a housewife" in apologetic tones. And from this grows an edge of anger over being made to feel outmoded.

Quite clearly, there are many women who feel that with a fair chance they will end up among the winners. Often women, however, would rather not be tested. But the issue is not whether they are afraid of competing with men alone, as the working world already contains many ambitious women. Nor should it be assumed that all younger women are committeed to careers. Students at my college tell me that many women in high school set having a home and a husband as their overriding aim. Even today most marriages take place before the bride is 22, and children are born soon thereafter.

What of reports that more married women are employed than ever before, and thus take a stake in a better deal at work? Here it would be well to see just what the figures say. To begin with, the Labor Department regards as having a job anyone who works ("for pay or profit") one hour or more during a given week. Under this generous interpretation, it is not surprising that so many women are classed as being in the labor force. The school crossing guard who goes on duty for 10 hours a week gets the same statistical weight as an advertising executive who puts in a 10-hour day.

The Census Bureau also has tables showing that of all married women currently living with their husbands, fewer than a third have full-time jobs. Among mothers with children under 6, three-quarters do not work at all or take only part-time jobs. And with wives whose children are all over 18, two-thirds either have not chosen employment or have limited themselves to part-time work. In fact, the majority of married women choose not to go to work once their children have left home.

Thus, in the typical two-income marriage, the wife contributes less than 22 percent of the family's total earnings, a fraction owing less to discrimination than to her supplemental schedule. Even for those who can say that they are more than "just a housewife," their obligations at home still take priority. At every class level the full-time working wife remains relatively rare. Cases where one spouse is an urban planner and the other a financial analyst, with their 2-year-old at a super day-care center, are not yet common enough to weigh the statistical columns.

One of the more compelling arguments for the ERA addressed itself to women who must support themselves because of divorce or desertion or early widowhood. When circumstances require women to make it on their own, they discover just how limited their rights and opportunities are. Even now no one is entirely sure what claims a wife can make after 20 years of marriage. While alimony is less and less granted to a spouse, it has yet to be settled whether a husband must pay the bills while his former wife tries to equip herself for a gainful occupation. As indicated earlier, these are rights any number of women may someday wish to assert.

Yet therein lies the rub. It is not that women who have stayed at home see themselves as second-class creatures deserving a lesser set of rights. Rather they look on themselves as having entered into a complementary contract. In return for caring for a husband and raising their children, what the wife expects in return is love and companionship, of course, but also a status of some honor and measure of protection. To put the matter even more bluntly, she does not want to be divorced; nor does she even wish to comtemplate how she would survive were that situation ever to come about. This may be a foolish attitude, but to label it as such is not the way to win converts to the ERA. a

A typical wife is shrewd enough to realize that the more women assert their rights, the more controls loosen over men. Until recently, men acquiesced to the moral and cultural pressures that kept marriages intact. Men may have stayed married out of duty; but at least they stayed. It is this sense that the ERA atmosphere threatens family life. Moral obligations that once bound partners cannot be provisos and demands. Germaine Greer once offered a two-word solution to a wife unhappy with her husband: "Leave him." Yet it would be well to acknowledge that as the middle years approach there are not that many marriages where the woman wants to pack her bags. Her situation may seem pathetic, especially if he wants out and she still wants to keep him. Or so it may appear to liberated women on whom years have yet to take a toll. At this point there is still one unfairness even the ERA will not remedy. In our society women depreciate faster than men. Divorce can spell opportunities for a husband. For a wife it often means the end of the road she chose.

At this point we come to a phase of the ERA no one really wants to discuss. The divorce rate is not only rising, but is now hitting marriages once believed immune. Increasingly husbands in their 40s are deciding they want another time around and are seeking this rejuvenation with a younger second wife.

Of course, this situation is not entirely new. In the past, however, the other woman tended to be a manicurist or a chorus girl, a plot line more for the movies than for actual life. Now husbands are increasingly apt to have as colleagues high-powered younger women who understand their professional problems in ways a wife never can. These affinities can emerge as easily in a patrol car as in planning a marketing campaign. Shared work, particularly under pressure, has aphrodisiac effects.

For wives who mainly stay at home, the ERA stands for new relationships at work that can lead to losing a husband. Even if the wife at home has never seen the statistics, she knows that if she finds herself divorced at the age of 40, her own chances for remarriage are less than 1 in 3. This realization is hardly one to align her with women who seem ready to give their husbands a second stab at life. It is difficult to support an amendment that consigns you to the shelf.

With Phyllis Schafly always in the limelight, many people concluded that opposition to the ERA was a one-woman operation. In fact, the rank and file were always there, but their support never took the form of a coherent movement. Women anxious about the ERA were not the sort to go on marches or bare their souls in public. Yet in countless informal ways they got their feelings across: in coffee hours, at country clubs, even over dinner at home. This was especially apparent at July's Republican convention, where close to a quarter of the delegates were women.

When a party aspiring to the presidency takes a stand against an amendment thought to have strong support, it should not be dismissed as an impulsive act. It could just be that the Republicans have been studying the political statistics over the past few years. They know that the people who count in politics are those who actually go to the polls. And as it turns out, among married women, close to two-thirds vote in most elections, whereas fewer than half of single women do.

In addition, the median age of the American electorate is fast approaching 50. Of persons between the ages of 45 and 64, about 60 percent usually vote, while for those from 25 to 34 the figure is less than 40 percent. Ronald Reagan may hope to reap rewards by showing that he cares about citizens most likely to cast ballots.

The ERA was definitely a "woman's issue," with women dominating both sides of the struggle. If the amendment's supporters erred, it was in ignorng the sensibilities of women not avid for careers or for whom that option appears to come too late. Women opposed the ERA because it jeopardized a way of life they had entered in good faith. And their legislators listened.