Fifty-five years after it was first introduced in Congress, the Equal Rights Amendment is tantalizingly stymied three states short of becoming part of the Constitution. Because chances for final ratification in 1978 are almost nil, hopes for passage before the March 22, 1979, deadline are focused on next November's elections in the expectation that enough pro-ERA state legislators will be elected to pass it.

In the seven years since it was approved by Congress and sent to the states for ratification, the proposed amendment to guarantee equality for women under the law has spawned sophisticated lobbying networks both for and against it. Thousands of women who were not previously politically active have been mobilized on both sides and are now engaged in an elaborate effort to influence public opinion.

As evidence that the ERA controversy is not unprecedented, students of history point to previous amendments added to the Constitution and the furor surrounding their passage - voting rights for black people, prohibition, voting rights for women. The Equal Rights Amendment has become both a talisman and a target, a symbol of important values to those who want it and a symbol of everything that's wrong with society to those who don't.

Elections have been won and lost largely on the one issue of the ERA, and it has become a time-consuming source of strife in legislatures across the country. Thirty-five states have ratified it: 15 have not. (Three of the 35 states, Idaho, Nebraska and Tennessee, have since voted to rescind their earlier approval of ERA. However, whether they can legally do so is as yet undertermined).

Last week resolutions supporting the ERA failed in South Carolina and Virginia; in January a Georgia Senate committee stalled it and the Alabama Senate voted it down.

Of the 15 nonratifying states, ERA opponents consider all but three - Illinois, North Carolina and Florida - to be "safe," according to a leading spokeswoman, Phyllis Schlafly. ANd even in those three "the situation looks good," she said.

Proponents, however, point to at least six states, adding Missouri, Nevada, and Oklahoma, as places where there is reasonable hope, and of the others they completely write off only Mississippi and Utah. (Mississippi is the only state where the ERA has never been introduced in the legislature, and Utah is dominated by anti-ERA Mormons. Organizing there is considered a waste of energy by ERA supporters).

"We never expected to get three states in 1978," said Sheila Greenwald, executive director of ERA-America. "Too many state aren't in session or voted on it last year . . . But it will be ratified by March 1979 - well, let me say it will be ratified at some point - because it's right, and because of the strong feelings of the women in those states.They will not stop."

But, despite the optimism, the strong commitments to the ERA, the support of Presidents' wives and children and groups as disparate as the United Auto WOrkers and the Business and Professioinal Women's Clubs. ERA supporters have been thwarted by a relative handful of state legislators, who are backed by a very vocal anti-ERA lobby. It is impossible to pinpoint the exact number of legislators - at one point ERA-America cochairperson Liz Carpenter said there were 16 - but for the most part they are middle-aged white men.

To opponents, like Mrs. Schlafly, the current stalemate is clear evidence that the American people do not favor the ERA. "I don't see them gaining anywhere," she said."The momentum's going our way. I feel very optimistic."

Clearly, at this point hopes for the eventual passage of the ERA are pinned to the vargaries of politice: who will decide to run for which statae offices in the coming months, who will support extending the deadline in Congress, and who will have the influence to exert pressur on key people.

The optimism and momentum of the first year after the ERA was approved in Congress, when 30 states ratified it, have been replaced by a political struggle that occasionally takes on the signs of a guerrilla war.

In Virginia last week, for example, after the ERA was defeated by a 12-to-8 vote in committee, two ERA lobbyists were arrested after a group they were with started chanting and sehouting in the main hall of the Capitol. One of the women said she spat in the face of a police officer.

The Associated Press reported that on Friday, drawings of female anatomy, descriptions of lesbian love-making, and lesbian love poetry was distributed to about 30 Kentucky legislators by anti-ERA forces. (Kentucky ratified the ERA in 1972 and two attempts to rescind that vote have failed.)

In South Carolina, an ERA resolution failed last Tuesday on 23-to-18 vote, after three senators committee to vote for it switched sides. Two others paired their votes with anti-ERA senators, so those for votes were not reflected in the totals, and one senator who had voted for it in the House said he was now undecided and did not vote.

Greenwald, the ERA-America executive director, pointed to the influence of state Sen. L. Marion Gressette in South Carolina as the main reason for the vote switches. Gressette, 76, has been in the state legislature since 1925, and is an active ERA oppon ent as well as the most powerful man in the Senate.

"He was all over the floor promising the sun, moon and sky if they'd switch their votes," Greenwald said. The three senators denied that influence in local news reports, one saying his wife convinced him to switch, and another saying his constituents were overwhelmingly against it. The third is running for a vacant circuit court judgeship, a position elected by the legislature. He denied that this candidacy had influenced his decision to go along with president pro-tem Gressette.

The strategy employed by ERA proponents in South Carolina contrasts with that used in Virginia. According to a veteran political observer in Columbia, S.C., ERA proponents have worked to make ratification a civil rights issue, getting the endorsement of the state NAACP, hiring a black former state senator as chief lobbyist, and toning down a "pushy broad" image some supporters had acquired.

In a state where 25 per cent of the electorate is black, the strategy was effective in getting the measure to a vote. "The strategy of the pro-forces worked, it just wasn't successful," said Jack Bass, co-author of "The Transformation of Southern Politics."

In Virginia, the lobbyists have gradually switched from a "white gloves" approach to a "get tough" attitude. "We've been nice little ladies for too long," said spokesman Patricia Goodman. "It hasn't worked."

Their strategy was focused on last November's election. A two year effort in Alexandria culminated in the defeat of the powerful, anti-ERA House majority leader, Democrat Jim Thomson, ERA supportres claim credit for the defeat of Thomson and his replacement by a young, pro-ERA Rebublican, Gary Myers.

Although they claim significant vote blocks in at least two other elections, the Thomson defeat may not be enough to successfully impress legislators with their clout.

At this point, passage in Virginia depends on parliamentary moves to get the bill onto the House floor, where there is a slim chance it could pass. (The Senate voted it down last year, 21 to 19.) A new legislature will not be elected until 1979, after the deadline for ratification.

Similar politically intricate situations are deciding the future of the ERA in other states as well. In Florida, for example, Gov. Rueben Askew, who supports the amendment, has said he may call for a special session of the legislature after the November elections just to vote on ERA; last year the Senate voted 19 to 21 to defeat it. In Georgia, where the Senate voted in January to keep the ERA in committee, there is great interest in getting the next Democratic National Convention held next time in Atlanta - but the committee won't meet in a state that has not ratified the ERA.

One aspect of the proponents' battle is an effort to get the deadline for ratification changed. Legislation to extend the deadline by seven years is sitting in a House subcommittee, which held three days of hearings on it last November. Subcommittee chairman Don Edwards (D-Calif.) said the other day that although he personally favors both the ERA and the extension, the vote among the five Democrats and two Republicans on the sub-committee is so close he wouldn't predict it. He suggested, however, that a shorter deadline extension might have more support.

The division in the committee, which is based on questions of constitutionality and "changing the rules in the middle of the game," is reflected within the women's movement. While some leaders argue that because this is the first proposed constitutional amendment with a ratification deadline it is unfair not to extend it. Others are worried that the political impact of having to extend the deadline will be interpreted as a lack of grassroots support.