THE CAMPAIGN to secure ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment has entered its final year. Demonstrations were held last Tuesday in major cities across the country. Those in Washington and New York were reported only on the inside pages of the B sections of The New York Times and The Washington Post. That is an illustration of the uphill battle which faces the advocates of ERA in the next year.
No speaker at any of the rallies denied that it will be uphill. Even though Congress voted in 1978 to extend the date for ratification from March 22, 1979, to June 30, 1982, no state has ratified the amendment since 1977. Thirty-five states have ratified it; three more are needed. It is highly unlikely that these will be found. A campaign which at first seemed irresistible has all but fizzled out.
I would vote for ERA, if I were ever in a position to do so, but not with any enthusiasm. I am not at all certain that it will make much difference, and it seems to me an awkward instrument for its purposes. Although sympathetic to its more down-to-earth objectives, writing them into the Constitution seems to me wrongheaded. People worry about how it might be used to achieve other objectives.
It has from the beginning been a strategically unwise move on the part of the women's movement. Yet I would now support it because, once brought forward and placed on the nation's agenda, its defeat will be a reverse that is dangerous. The women's movement has been steadily losing ground in the past few years. The failure to ratify ERA will be more important as a symbolic than a practical defeat.
The general mood of the country is clearly less sympathetic to feminism than a few years ago. The present administration is obviously unsympathetic. Even as it is now constituted, the Supreme Court is retreating from its earlier sensitivity, and it will soon be more conservative. No one who understands the injustices still done to women can be happy at the thought that ERA will be defeated.
It is therefore all the more important that the leaders of the women's movement should acknowledge their own mistakes and accept their own share of the blame. Some of these leaders admit that it is women as well as men, once supporters of the movement, who have withdrawn into indifference if not outright opposition. If you are leading a popular movement, you cannot blame the populace when it defects. They know whether or not you are speaking to their interests.
It may seem trivial to say so, but the movement has, since its early years of novelty, underestimated the effect of boredom. Its propaganda has been monotonous. More and more people have just grown tired of it. This is not because it talks of only one or a few things. It is because it talks of everything. Every problem or difficulty, injustice or unhappiness, is reduced to a women's issue.
Some blacks are unequal for other reasons than that they are black; so are some women (or men) for other reasons than that they are women (or men). Some blacks are unhappy for other reasons than that they are black; so are some women (or men) for other reasons than that they are women (or men). Ordinary people are too aware of the complexity of their lives to listen for long to explanations that stay on a single level of concern.
The women's movement has also allowed the campaign for ERA -- which seeks only "equality of rights under the law" -- to be associated with issues on which the law is not obviously competent to speak. Equal employment opportunities; equal pay for equal work; equal work conditions; equal definitions of equal jobs (a battle being fought by nurses): for all of these, support for ERA would have held.
But one has only to look at what happens when the law is asked to deal with the issue of "sexual harassment" in the workplace to understand why the support for ERA has eroded. Such harassment is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Sec. 2000e et seq. Last year the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also issued interim guidelines trying to define the violations.
It rightly stated that "unwelcome sexual advances" constitute "sexual harassment" when they are used, "explicitly or implicitly," as a condition of an individual's employment or opportunities in that employment, or interfere with the individual's work. Even in the careful words of the full guidelines, the possibilities of endless litigation are obvious. But they hinge on the right point: the threat to the individual's employment.
But one then turns to the definition which has been proposed by the National Organization for Women. Behavior is to be counted as "sexual harassment" if it is "offensive or objectionable to the recipient or . . . causes the recipient discomfort or humiliation or . . . interferes with the recipient's job performance." This takes us into realms where judgments of behavior are so subjective that the law can hardly deal with them.
Lin Farley in her book, "Sexual Shakedown," says that "sexual harassment" includes: "staring at, commenting upon, or touching a woman's body." How could the law define any of those terms? But it is precisely that kind of absurdity which has driven many supporters of ERA almost into the arms of Phyllis Schafly. People understandably begin to wonder what fatuities would be written into the Constitution if ERA were ratified and the courts then began to apply them.
But the women's movement has allowed the legitimate objectives of ERA to be confused with even wider issues. It is obviously very difficult for the law to determine what constitutes a husband's rape of his wife. We have here moved out of the work-place, where sexual advances do not have any clear role, into the privacy of the home, where they are generally assumed to have their place.
There certainly are cases in which it is justified to speak of a man raping his wife. But one would have forgiven Solomon if he had decided not to take any such case. Women's liberation has been far too facile on many matters of sex which most people know are personal and intricate and even intriguingly so. It is perhaps the area of life in which it is most obvious that there are two sides to every story.
When the women's movement has then allowed ERA to be confused with such profound moral issues as the legalization or government funding of abortion, or such tangential and divisive issues as lesbian rights, then it cannot complain if many people have gone home to have children and live with some degree of reward and harmony with members of the opposite sex whom they have chosen.
The advocates of ERA in this last year of the long campaign ought to stick to the injustices which people can at once recognize and the law can help to remedy. Full-time, year-round women workers earn on the average only three-fifths of what men earn, the same as in 1960; the same, even, as in 1939. Thump that fact home and, who knows, they might yet carry Illinois.
Women are still grossly overrepresented in the less skilled and lower-paid jobs, and as grossly underrepresented in professional and technical and managerial jobs. "Clerical, sales, secretarial, nursing" -- the kinds of jobs to which most women are confined -- that should be the chant of the supporters of ERA. On as clear an issue as that, for one thing, what a national constituency is ready-made!
But ask those in "clerical, sales, secretarial, nursing" to join them on abortion, or in the wilder definitions of sexual harassment, and that constituency fades away. Nurses who now perform many paramedical functions may rightly object to their low pay and poor work conditions; but I doubt whether they are ready to surrender their interest or humor in the well known sexual advances of young interns.
The serious advocates of ERA ought to form themselves into a separate organization which is seen by the public to be clearly dissociated from the rest of the women's movement. That does not mean that it would not still be able to call on the energy of the rest of the movement. But it does mean that those who support the passage of ERA could do so without feeling that they have to support every extravagant proposition of NOW.