There was a timely sense of outrage to the statement of Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) on the occasion of his announcement that he would lead the fight to extend the time limit for the Equal Rights Amendment: "When we are dealing with the issue of equality for all Americans, we are not playing a game. This issue is one of tremendous importance to each and every citizen, to those now living and those not yet born who will be looking back on te history of this effort and will hold us accountable for our action."

I doubt that Bayh could have made that statement a couple of years ago. If he had, I could not have agreed with it. Because the amendment didn't seem to me all that important. Wasn't equality of rights for women assumed in the Constitution? The 14th Amendment, for example, defines a citizen as a person and guarantees all citizens equal protection of the laws.

So I thought - or at least hoped. But now that the amendment seems about to be defeated by a narrow failure to win three-fourths of the state ligislatures, the negative seems to me far more important than the positive would have been. In other words, it may not be important to say that women do have equal rights. But it is surely very important to say that they do not.

Which is what the minority who oppose the ERA are about to make us do.

I do not know what setbacks this statement may suggest for more than half the citizens in the country who happen to be women, but I don't like the sound of it.

At the very least, it seems to me, it suggests that opportunities for women in fields that are now effectively closed to them - trade-union leadership, for example - will continue to be closed and that the trend that has recently brought a few women t leadership posts in business and industry will halt, about where it is now.

Moreover, we ought to be somewhat ashamed of the manner in which the amendment was attacked. Opponents convinced a good many women that the real issue was lesbianism and unisex toilets and a good many men thought their wives were going to have to carry guns in the front lines, drive bulldozers and lift bales. It was a dirty campaign, and Birch Bayh is right to say that the right wing used "false issues and out-right lies."

So I'm in favor of the time extension that ERA proponents are requesting. On this point, I have changed my view.

One reason is that the original seven-year limit on the time required for the amendment to be adopted by the states was set forth in the preamble to the amendment itself. The state legislatures did not vote on the preamble and this fact seems to me to invalidate the charge that ERA proponents are trying to change the rules in the middle of the game.

Nor is there any question that the Congress has the authority to set any time limit it wishes or to set no time limit at all as was the case for the first 17 amendments and the 19th.

So the Supreme Court ruled in 1921. And in 1939, the court further said that the Congress has the right to revise the ratification time "set by that body."

So with the questions of legality and fairness settled, I'm for giving the amendment another chance. "Equality of Rights under the law shall not be denied or adridged by the United States or any State on account of sex." Maybe it wasn't necessary of say "yes" to that simple statement.

But it makes me very uncomfortable to think thay my country is about to say "no."