Eight years ago, in the first flush of the women's movement, Iowa became one of the pioneer states to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment. Five years ago, the legislature went through the state code and rewrote virtually every law that discriminated on the basis of sex.

But today the women of this most middle-American state are, like the rest of the country, angrily divided. "Equality," it seems, is no longer an unquestioned goal. And ERA has become the battle line between women who embrace the social changes of the last decade and women who resist them.

Today Iowans will vote in a referendum on whether to put an ERA in the state constitution. But the fury over ERA is less about politics than about marriage, sex, children, careers, religious and moral values. ERA has become a powerful symbol of the feminist movement and the changes surrounding it.

In what may turn out to be the most far-reaching social revolution of the century, American women are pouring into the labor market at an unprecedented rate. Almost half now work outside the home, including 42 percent of married women with preschool children. Three quarters of working women have little choice -- they are either single, widowed, divorced or their husbands earn less than $10,000 a year.

For some women, the revolution has been welcome. For others, it is a painful, confusing time when old lifestyles are going out of vogue and equality is not always what it seems.

Suzanne Schenken and Rea Okiishi are two Iowa housewives who have never met each other. Schenken is for the ERA. Okiishi is against it. But they have much in common. Each has been profoundly affected by the women's movement over the last 10 years. They emerge from the experience asking the same question, albeit from different biases: Now that women have he choice to be homeowners and college graduates and lawyers and welders, will they still have the choice to stay home?

Iowa City -- The city's only woman firefighter resigned today because of alleged harassment by male workers but vowed to pursue her 16-month legal fight for the right to breastfeed her son in the firehouse. United Press International

Greenfield -- Four boys were suspended from Greenfield High School this week for allegedly mixing barbiturates with cookie batter during a home economics class. Des Moines Tribune

A brilliant law student . . . lost custody of her two children, ages 11 and eight [when the Iowa District] Court expressed its view that, since the woman student would have to work in the law library away from home, it could not imagine how she would ever find time to be an adequate mother. National Organization for Women newsletter

Last winter, when the snow piled high around her suburban home, and she thought she was going crazy alone with the housework and two babies, Suzanne Schenken marched downtown to volunteer at the cramped, paper-strewn headquarters of the Iowa ERA coalition.

It was only one day a week, on Tuesdays, and she took her six-week-old infant to breastfeed while she was there, but it was she says, "one of the neatest experiences I've ever had. All of a sudden I got to be one of the women who gets something done, who is politically active, who is more than a bottle washer and diaper changer."

Suzanne O'Dea Schenken -- as she proudly lists herself, separately from her husband, in the Des Moines phone book -- is a feminist as well as a housewife. It is a schizophrenic role for this normally cheery soul. Underneath the broad smile, the curly blond hair and rosy cheeks, she is clearly troubled.

"Intellectually I understand it's important to my kids for me to be around, but emotionally I want to be out there working where I have an immediate sense of worth, a feeling of accomplishment," she says.

Schenken is among the majority of American women -- albeit a slim majority -- who have the choice to stay home. Yet, like many housewives these days, she feels the pull of the workplace where equality can be measured in dollars and cents, and status means a definable place in the hierarchy.

"When you're out in the real world working at a paying job, you're more important than if you're home vacuuming -- I still haven't been able to toss that [idea] off," she says.

Many women would envy Schenken. Daughter of a traveling salesman and a housewife from Sioux City, she worked her way through Iowa State University by going to night school and working days at a printing firm. Now, at 30, she lives in a woodsy subdivision with her husband, John, a businessman who pads around in stocking feet and serves hot mulled wine while his wife chats with a visitor.

"It's been very hard to become a housewife," said Schenken, who has not worked since the birth of her first child three years ago. "It took me 10 years to get my B.A. Now I've got it in my hot little hand and I want to use it. . . . When you're a homemaker, you're taking care of everybody else. I have a terrible time getting a sense of value from raising children. I don't want to talk to other wives about whether Pampers are better than Huggies."

Schenken said: "My kids are gorgeous, intellectually responsive, physically agile. But no matter how much you love your kids, babies are an imposition. The physical demands are unending. . . . You can only pay [the game] fireman so many times. . . . It's just so damn boring."

On the other hand, Schenken remembers the frustration and discrimination she suffered in her job. "Printing is a man's world," she says. And when she picks up her son at the babysitter's on Tuesdays and "all he wants to do is sit on my lap in the rocking chair and cling," she knows her children need her.Besides, if she went back to work, "our social life would come to a standstill," she said, since all spare time would be spent with the children.

When it comes to such fundamental decisions about how to live one's life, Schenken believes that ERA is "pretty insignificant."

"The ironic thing is that in Iowa its not going to make much difference," she said. Iowa recently reformed must of its discriminatory laws -- a constitutional amendment would be an additional safeguard.

Nonetheless, Schenken and thousands like her feel passionately about the issue. Whether they work inside or outside the home, they want to feel equal, and, for them, that is what ERA is all about.

"ERA is a symbol of all the things that have been happening to us over the last 10 years," Schenken said. "Personally, it means we've made it. We're here.

ERA would take away women's given rights in exchange for the dubious 'privilege' of being treated exactly like men. The right to do the same heavy work in factories, to serve in combat like men, and to abort their babies. . . . A strong family centers around the unit consisting of the father as the provider and protector and the wife as mother and homemaker. . . . Let's not allow the vocal feminists who are antifamily to weaken our nation with this misleading amendment! Dorothy Larson Letter to Manchester Press

Unfortunately, neither the State nor the federal ERA is enough to accomplish equalization of resources between women and men. Nor is an ERA enough to end the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which men maintain their one-up position over women, including the objectification of women (from ogling on the street to drooling over porn), the threat of male violence (from harassment to rape and beating) and the refusal of too many men in the general population to assume the responsibility for their share of the housework and child care. Susan Shellar Truse Letter to the Cedar Rapids Gazette

ERA might be the greatest thing that ever happened to man and woman to date . . . [but] I don't know if the average, ordinary citizen can be subject to any more social changes. How far can Mr. and Mrs. Average be bent, twisted and punched without breaking? Rita Walton Letter to the Cedar Falls Record

Rae Okiishi is all for equality: equal pay, equal promotions, equal education. She's even glad that her sons are learning to sew in home economics class.

But there is another type of equality she cares about, too. It has to do as much with equality between women and women, as between men and women. It has to do with equal status, equal appreciation, equal security. It has to do with working at home with dignity and self-respect.

"It's not fair for me to be judged as unequal because of what I do," says Okiishi, who is proud to be a housewife.

"I come from a background of strong women," she adds with more than a touch of defensiveness. "I choose not to be self-supporting, although I could be. Nobody chooses me. I choose for myself.

"The housewives I know don't sit around and watch TV and eat bonbons. They are highly skilled. They make 90 percent of the clothes they wear. They make one income go very far. It is done nobly, kindly, with a lot of effort. The assumption they must generate funds is one I take issue with."

From her suburban home in Ames, a half hour from Des Moines, Okiishi, 36, organizes coffees, sends out petitions and writes letters to the editor in opposition to ERA. Daughter of a psychiatrist, and a psychologist who chose to become a full-time mother, she is a tall, imposing woman, with a firm, friendly manner. Her mimeographed resume proudly lists Cub Scout den leader, church chorister, "parenting class facilitator" and a dozen other volunteer activities after the master's degree in psychology. Her husband is an engineering professor, and their four sons are members of the Mormon church.

As far as Iowa feminists are concerned, Okiishi is part of the militant new Christian right. She belongs to the Iowa Citizens for Family Life, which is campaigning against ERA, and to such groups as Happiness of Womanhood (HOW), Women Who Want to be Women (WWWW), and My Right to Be a Woman, based in Sioux City.

But the members of these groups are ordinary people with ordinary fears. They want to protect their families from divorce, promiscuity, abortions, delinquency, homosexuality. They speak of morality and traditional values, and God. Certainly these are universal concerns. Where they differ from Schenken and her feminist colleagues is that, for them, ERA is part of the problem, a symptom of a society that is on the skids.

"The ethos of the times before ERA was that the husband was the regular breadwinner," Okiishi said. "Now, when people choose to be homemakers, I wonder if they'll be supported for that down the line."

Okiishi fears that ERA will iliminate alimony, and will invalidate all state laws that require husbands to support their wives. Mothers, she fears, will be forced into the workplace if courts say they are responsible for half the support of their children. ERA proponents point out that under Iowa law since 1857 women have been equally responsible for the support of the family -- and that work in the home is regarded as support.

A major issue of the Iowa campaign has been whether ERA would result in homosexual marriages (if the law specifies marriage according to a certain sex, isn't that discrimination?), and, consequently, grant married homosexuals the right to adopt children. Okiishi and other ERA opponents also say it would require government funding of abortions, since to deny funds would be to discriminate against women. Proponents deny any connection between ERA and abortion or homosexual rights.

Underlying the specific arguments is a general uneasiness about the surge of women into the labor force, and the change in the power structure within the family that that implies. And if the relationships between husbands and wives are altered, what of relationships between parents and children? The prospect of a generation raised by babysitters and in day care centers is a disturbing thought for many people.

Okiishi, for instance, talks of her neighborhood's "blue star homes" program. In a mile-wide radius around the elementary school, parents for years have placed blue stars in their windows so that children walking to and from school will know someone is there if they need something.

"Now there are blocks and blocks -- whole areas -- where there isn't anyone home during the day," Okiishi said. "And a lot of kids are unsupervised before and after school.

"Between 10 and 14 they are too old for babysitters, too young for jobs. That's when you get into socially unacceptable behavior and chemical dependency. I come from the direction that it's my job to see my kids are taken care of. Children need nurturing. It's important to have one person to relate to over a very long time."

ERA, it might seem, will have little to do with what women such as Okiishi and Schenken decide to do with their lives. Economics, certainly, will play an important role. But it is no coincidence that, at the time when women are marrying later, taking more paying jobs, having fewer babies, getting dovorced more, having more abortions, and demanding that their husbands chip in with housework and child care, they also are pushing for the Equal Rights Amendment.

To some, it is a danger -- to others, an opportunity.