When Ronald Reagan backed off his party's 40-year-long commitment to the broadest constitutional protection for the civil rights of American women--support of the ERA--he gave three reasons. First, he said, women were already protected by existing constitutional provisions, in particular the 14th Amendment. Second, what was really needed was stronger enforcement of the laws against sex discrimination already on the books. And third, he pledged himself to a "better way"--a two- pronged effort systematically to identify and eliminate or correct remaining individual instances of sex discrimination a) in the federal and b) in the states' codes.

All three of these arguments implied certain actions on Reagan's part. But he has not taken them. He has reneged on his commitment. I know. I have been there from the start--at the Republican National Convention, in the room on the 68th floor of the Renaissance Center where the platform was hammered out, on the six-man fast-turnaround research team for the president's speechwriters in the campaign, on the transition team after Nov. 4, specializing in outreach to federal departments and agencies which had specific programs relevant to women, and in the West Wing of the White House, at the physical node of the Offices of Policy Development, Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs, personally translating the president's campaign promise for an "ERA alternative" into tangible federal programs. For the past year and a quarter, I have been in the Justice Department, as project director of the Attorney General's Gender Discrimination Agency Review, trying to carry out the president's "ERA alternative."

Let's take the president's three reasons one by one. When asked specifically to state which existing constitutional provisions he has in mind that already protect women, the president generally refers to the 14th Amendment--as he did after signing the executive order creating his federal- level "ERA alternative" back on Dec. 21, 1981, in the Cabinet Room. But the fact is that women are not today and never have been fully or securely protected under the 14th Amendment against federal sex discrimination, state sex discrimination, or lack of federal enforcement of existing sex-discrimination prohibitions--which, as we shall see, becomes especially important under Reagan.

The 14th Amendment wasn't even used to overturn laws which discriminated against women until just a little over a decade ago. This wasn't for lack of women's trying to get the Supreme Court to use it to strike down the vast numbers of laws that discriminated against them purely on the basis of gender. Women brought cases trying to get the Supreme Court to give them the vote under the 14th Amendment and were turned down; they tried to get permission to practice law under the 14th Amendment and were turned down; and they tried to get permission to work the same hours and the same kind of jobs as men and were turned down. And to this day the Supreme Court does not rule in sex-discrimination cases based on the same toughest standard of review it uses when considering racial discrimination or religious discrimination cases.

There is, however, one exception to this rule. The one category of gender-specific law the Supreme Court has consistently reviewed under its strictest 14th Amendment standard consists of laws that interfere with a woman's right to choose abortion. But this is the area Reagan is doing everything in his power to remove from the jurisdiction of the court altogether--anti-abortion law.

The second of Reagan's reasons that American women don't need an equal rights amendment is that all America really needs is tougher enforcement of the laws against sex discrimination we already have. But it is the Reagan administration itself that is doing everything in its power to reduce the enforcement and narrow the interpretation of the existing statutes that forbid sex discrimination.

An example is the administration's attempt not to broaden or strengthen but rather to narrow radically the scope of application of Title IX--the federal law that bans discrimination against women in any school, university or educational program receiving federal funds. Most do receive such funds in some form or another. Earlier administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have interpreted this law against sex discrimination to apply very broadly. The Justice Department's Title IX brief in Grove City takes the position that only educational programs or activities that receive federal funds directly should be constrained by existing federal laws that prohibit sex discrimination--not the school, college or university as a whole. If this administration is successful in Grove City, I believe a precedent will be set to gut enforcement of dozens of federal laws that currently protect Americans against discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, religion, creed or handicap in "programs or activities which receive federal funds."

Reagan also undermined the Women's Educational Equity Act Program at the Department of Education. Authorization for the program was slashed from $80 million a year to $6 million. And then, not long ago, the Department of Education testified in a House hearing on its plan to gut the program even further by abolishing jobs that the remaining $6 million would, in part, fund. One of the major reasons women who know give for the absolute necessity of an ERA is precisely the point Ronald Reagan's own administration makes raw: federal statutes can be repealed or, if technically still on the books, be effectively voided by a president who doesn't enforce or who narrows the scope of the law.

The third reason Reagan has given for why women do not require an ERA is that his two- pronged part-federal-law- and part-state-law-oriented ERA alternative will be more efficient in actually eliminating remaining sex-discriminatory federal and state laws and regulations one by one. I believed the president and his men when they said they would do these things. With great expectations I agreed to work to develop and implement these projects in the White House's Office of Policy Development and spent the first year of the administration, from January 1981 through early 1982, doing just that before I followed the project to the Justice Department.

The president's federal-level "ERA alternative" under his Executive Order 12336 calls for an exhaustive effort to identify and correct or eliminate remaining sex discrimination found in the U.S. Code, the Code of Federal Regulations, and any policy, practice or program of any federal department or agency. As implemented in practice, the order has three stages: 1) identification of the "problems" by a massive computer-assisted search; 2) seeking to change the problem laws and regulations, policies and programs that discriminate against women; and 3) implementing these changes in the departments and agencies.

This is an immense project. The identification effort alone took a year to complete just for the laws; our search was more complete and definitive than the previous Civil Rights Commission list in its report of 1977. The results of this effort at identification, which I have personally directed at the Department of Justice for the past year and a quarter, are forwarded periodically to the president and his Cabinet Council on Legal Policy for decision as to actions. They are to decide what laws to seek to change and what regulations to alter or eliminate through presidentially initiated action-- that is the second stage of the process.

The third and last stage--if and when the president decides to make any changes in a regulation, policy or practice of an agency--is the implementation stage. This would be undertaken by another group, called the Task Force on Legal Equity for Women, which has a purely implementary role. This task force is the only feature of the ERA alternative that has received any media attention to date, which is ironic since, so far, it has had nothing to do. The original chairman of the task force, Carol Dinkins--assistant attorney general for land and resources--has left the government, and the White House has not bothered to replace her at the task force.

Now you know what the president's "ERA alternative" is supposed to do. Let's compare that with what has actually happened. The identification effort is known as the Gender Discrimination Agency Review project. Fifteen attorneys and professional staff in the Coordination and Review Section of the Civil Rights Division have been involved in the effort over the past year. To date, three Quarterly Reports of the Attorney General have gone forward to the president, over the signature of William Bradford Reynolds, assistant attorney general for civil rights, but not a single law has been changed.

The first of these three reports, "The First Quarterly Report of the Attorney General under Executive Order 12336," went to the White House on June 28, 1982. The substantive part of that report is a partial listing of federal laws that still discriminate against women (or men), current only through 1976. This first report, however--like the third report, which was just delivered--contains no proposed corrections for the problem statutes. This is for two reasons. First, the working group that was organized under Martin Anderson, assistant to the president for policy development, to propose specific corrections was disbanded by the White House the moment it reported its first options for specific corrections. Ed Harper, Anderson's successor, wrote the members of the working group thanking them for completing their work-- which had only just begun! Second, Assistant Attorney General Reynolds interpreted the executive order as requiring Justice to identify problems but not also to propose solutions. Eventually Sen. Bob Dole arranged for a Senate Judiciary subcommittee attorney to draft a bill, now S 501, to correct selected "noncontroversial" laws in the list (translation: those that won't make a major difference if they're changed anyway).

The Second Quarterly Report under the executive order was only a three-page memorandum to the White House alerting the president that the agencies involved in searching their laws, regulations, policies and practices for sex discrimination were taking longer than expected to report, and that the Third Quarterly Report would contain the "big" item--the final list of sex discriminatory laws.

This "Third Quarterly Report of the Attorney General Under Executive Order 12336" is at the White House and has been since July 14 when I hand-delivered it to the West Wing.

This report has several parts. The first and key section is what the president mentioned to the International Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs recently when he said he would "do penance" by personally reading the "computer printouts of laws" needing to be changed. This list is now finished, final, definitive and exhaustive (with a notable exception which I will mention in a minute). It is the list of all federal laws that substantively discriminate on the basis of sex and which also have a sex-related term or terms in their language that the president has been waiting for. He has it in hand.

The second section of the Third Quarterly Report consists of the initial submissions from the first 17 (of 41) agencies reporting on their own internal reviews of their regulations, policies and practices for sex discrimination. These reports are above and beyond and different from the separate and complete list of statutes in the first section of the report.

Finally, the third section of the Third Quarterly Report is a list of all known federal laws that already prohibit sex discrimination in programs or activities that receive federal funds. If the prn Leesident gets his way in trying to cut back on the definition of what constitutes a "program or activity" that receives federal funds under Title IX, this would set the precedent for cutting back in the same manner on enforcement coverage of every statute on that list, of which there are dozens and dozens designed to protect women against sex discrimination.

Following the president's promise to do his "penance," Larry Speakes was quoted in The Post that the president has been "mistaken" when he told the International Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs that the "final report" had been received by the White House. He said the Justice Department would not be finishing up its reporting until April 19, 1984. This is untrue. The Fourth Quarterly Report, which will contain the vast majority of the remaining reports on regulations, policies and practices from the individual agencies will be completed no later than September. All that might still be outstanding by April 1984 would be a few insignificant odds and ends from at most one or two of 41 agencies.

This summary of the president's federal-level "ERA alternative" would not be complete if I didn't mention an event that happened in the summer of 1982. Shortly after moving to the Department of Justice to carry out the identification of laws and regulations under the executive order, I was called to the White House. A presidential aide had discovered that our computer review had been programmed to include a search for laws and regulations relating to pregnancy and abortion, and angrily told me that abortion and pregnancy have nothing to do with women's rights and therefore were to have no part in the identification effort. The final list of laws in the Third Quarterly Report therefore reflects this instruction.

What about the second prong of the president's "ERA alternative," which addresses not federal but state laws and regulations? This is called the "Fifty States Project" and was actually the "brainchild" of myself and Kevin Hopkins, now director of the Office of Policy Information at the White House. After Reagan rescinded his party's longtime commitment to the ERA at the Republican National Convention in 1980 and women were up in arms, the two of us stayed up all night drafting a memo proposing the rock-bottom minimum we thought Reagan might accept as a "compromise" with women. Even then, we reasoned, if he did win the election, having something would be better than having nothing.

Much to our surprise, the inner circle reviewed the memorandum and liked it. The promise to implement a Fifty States Project, which would assist the states in tangible ways, through the governors' offices, to identify and correct remaining sex discriminatory laws and regulations found its way, amazingly, into the first substantive paragraph of Reagan's acceptance speech at the convention. Even at that time, it was clear that, to work, the project would require, at minimum, at least one full-time staff person.

But the first special assistant to the president, appointed to head the project, Judy Peachee, was given lead responsibility for all liaison with 50 states in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and could hardly devote full time to the project. The original promise that the White House would actually do something to accelerate the process of identification and correction of sex-discriminatory laws and regulations in the 50 states became impossible as a matter of lack of priority.

The project was announced, with a sit-down luncheon and all-day briefing for representatives of the 50 governors' offices in October 1981. All that has resulted from the project to date is a pretty booklet listing what the 50 states had already done without there ever having been a so- called federally directed "ERA alternative."

In a last-ditch effort to salvage something of some lasting value from the president's two- part "ERA alternative," on July 22, after completing the Third Quarterly Report under the e prn Lefederal-law effort, I offered the White House Office of the Assistant to the President for Public Liaison the same exhaustive computer search using the same gender-term key-word program we had just used at Justice to search the federal laws--this time to help the states do the same for their own laws and regulations. (Some states have done a complete review of laws and regulations; most only a partial review, which automatically outdates itself; and some haven't done any review at all.)

Within a week of my offer, the White House called with its answer. This, I was informed, was "not something that the White House wants to expend any financial or political capital on." I was congratulated for being a "good advocate" and thanked for the generous offer.

"Advocate"? Generous offer? Curious. All I was "advocating" was action on something the president promised the American people over a year and a half ago.

When this piece is published, I suppose I shall be characterized as a disappointed job seeker on account of that offer. Well, let me be plain. I was seeking to do a job or at least to get someone to do a job to which I thought the White House was committed. But as with the other aspects of the president's so-called "ERA alternative" this too turned out to be a sham.

I don't know about you, but I am insulted when the president of my country haggles with the Civil Rights Commission over whether his record on appointment of women to top government jobs is 1 percent or 2 percent better or worse than Jimmy Carter's own lousy record. And I am insulted when the president of my country defends another all-male advisory commission claiming that "we never select individuals just because they're men or women . . . or whatever." Yes, there are other aspects, mostly economic, of any effort to undo wrongs against women in this country. But frankly, my dear, I don't think Ronald Reagan gives a damn.

Barbara Honegger is special assistant to the deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights and project director of the Attorney General's Gender Discrimination Agency Review. 50 states became impossible as a matter of lack of priority.

The project was announced, with a sit-down luncheon and all-day briefing for representatives of the 50 governors' offices in October 1981. All that has resulted from the project to date is a pretty booklet listing what the 50 states had already done without there ever having been a so- called federally directed "ERA alternative."

In a last-ditch effort to salvage something of some lasting value from the president's two- part "ERA alternative," on July 22, after completing the Third Quarterly Report under the e prn Lefederal-law effort, I offered the White House Office of the Assistant to the President for Public Liaison the same exhaustive computer search using the same gender-term key-word program we had just used at Justice to search the federal laws--this time to help the states do the same for their own laws and regulations. (Some states have done a complete review of laws and regulations; most only a partial review, which automatically outdates itself; and some haven't done any review at all.)

Within a week of my offer, the White House called with its answer. This, I was informed, was "not something that the White House wants to expend any financial or political capital on." I was congratulated for being a "good advocate" and thanked for the generous offer.

"Advocate"? Generous offer? Curious. All I was "advocating" was action on something the president promised the American people over a year and a half ago.

When this piece is published, I suppose I shall be characterized as a disappointed job seeker on account of that offer. Well, let me be plain. I was seeking to do a job or at least to get someone to do a job to which I thought the White House was committed. But as with the other aspects of the president's so-called "ERA alternative" this too turned out to be a sham.

I don't know about you, but I am insulted when the president of my country haggles with the Civil Rights Commission over whether his record on appointment of women to top government jobs is 1 percent or 2 percent better or worse than Jimmy Carter's own lousy record. And I am insulted when the president of my country defends another all-male advisory commission claiming that "we never select individuals just because they're men or women . . . or whatever." Yes, there are other aspects, mostly economic, of any effort to undo wrongs against women in this country. But frankly, my dear, I don't think Ronald Reagan gives a damn.