CHICAGO -- When you ask people here to name the single greatest recruiter in the checkered history of the Equal Rights Amendment, they are likely to come back with the same ironic resonse: Ronald Reagan.
The president and his henchpersons (if you will forgive the expression) have raised the anxiety and the activity level of people who might otherwise have passively watched the moribund amendment slide to its deadline death next June 30.
The new infusion of energy and anger in this unratified state is palpable. It includes people who had been lulled into believing that the ERA was merely "symbolic." It includes people who had bought the notion that there were, in fact, Other Ways to win equal rights. It includes people who believed Reagan when he said he was for the E and the R, but not the A.
But now, with some help from the Presidential Recruiter, we know what a difference a year makes. We have heard a lot about these Other Ways to equality and learned a lot of Other Lessons.
Other Way Number I : We can win equal rights through executive orders.
We made some real changes in employment for women under one executive order, the one called Affirmative Action.
In the years between 1969 and 1981, women as different as coal miners and bankers were allowed in and up. In 1973 a mere 0.001 percent of the coal miners were female. By 1979, 11.4 percent were female. In 1970, 17.6 percent of banking officials and managers were women. By 1980, women comprised 33.6 percent. In both cases, it was the federal watchers who made the difference. Way back then.
Other Lesson Number I : Executive orders are only useful as the executive.
Now, in the Reagan administration, the word is out that affirmative action won't be enforced. That isn't red tape they are cutting; it's the arteries of change.
Other Way Number ii : We can win equal rights through the legislature, statute by statute.
Titles 7 and 9 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are probably the best examples of statutes used to deal with sex discrimination in education and on the work force. They have helped make progress on such issues as sexual harassment, unequal opportunities in college athletics and discrimination in job hiring and promotion. Until lately.
Other Lesson Number II : A law is only as strong as its teeth. One administration's incisors may become the next administration's gums.
The Title 9 guidelines about sexual harassment and athletics are now being diluted with (George) Bush beer, and anti-regulatory brew. The chance to sue in the work place under Title 7 will be slowed to a near-halt by the cuts in investigatory staff at EEOC.
Other Way Number III : We can use the judiciary to win women's rights.
Over time, the higher courts have been extending equal rights to women by their interpretation of the laws. (See Other Way Number II). But not always.
Other Lesson Number III : You can't get to court without a case. A judgment is only as predictable as a judge.
It's no surprise that the Reagan administration, with a solicitor general like Rex Lee, will be, uh, less than ardent in its pursuit of sex discrimination cases.
Nor should it be a surprise when the Supreme Court backtracks with regard to women's rights. Last term, the court ruled, for example, that an Army ex-wife wasn't entitled to any portion of her husband's military pension. Her claim was, the court said, against "the national interest."
All of these Other Lessons teach basically one fact: the status of women is still fragile. What one Congress giveth, the next Congress may taketh away. What one president supports, the next president may undercut. What one court interprets, the next court may reinterpret.
There is just no substitute for being protected by the Constitution. There is no E and no R without an A.
So, with the lep of Ronnie the Recruiter, our awareness is growing, and our interest is escalating -- just as the time is shrinking. The final lesson would be to end up, too late, with the biggest pro-ERA constituency in history. On July 1, 1982.