The TV spot opens with a shot of a tombstone bearing the name George Baker and showing he died many years ago. The voice says, "When George Baker died, his widow was left with almost nothing. Under the law, she was not his equal partner, but his dependent. Her credit died with him. She wasn't old enough for Social Security and she barely made enough to live on."
Then the camera shifts to the right, to the tombstone of Edna Baker, who died in 1981. The voice says, "Three weeks ago, Edna Baker finally became George's equal."
At that point Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women, appears at the foot of the grave and says, "No woman should have to wait that long."
That ad is just one of many that have begun to air in the last two weeks as NOW begins its final $15 million push for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the months remaining until the June 30 deadline.
In spite of the setbacks--questions over the constitutionality of the ERA ratification process and a vigorous, well-financed campaign by the anti-ERA forces--proponents are working to persuade at least three additional state legislatures to ratify the amendment by the June 30 deadline. Thirty-five of the required 38 states have ratified.
The NOW effort resembles a presidential campaign, replete with buttons, bumper stickers, polls, door-to-door campaigning, a grass-roots organization, and heavy media advertising at both the state and national levels.
But the chances for ratification were dealt a stunning blow last month when U.S. District Court Judge Marion Callister in Boise, Idaho, ruled that Congress acted unconstitutionally in 1978 when it extended the ratification deadline by three years. He ruled that states have the authority to rescind previous ratifications, an action Congress has never recognized.
It isn't clear whether the legal issues will be resolved before time runs out.
NOW appealed Friday, asking the Supreme Court to consider the issue as quickly as possible. Unless the case is expedited, the court might not hear it until October, past the deadline.
The Justice Department announced last week that it would appeal Callister's Dec. 23 decision but that it would urge the court not to deal with the substantive issues in the case until after the deadline passes. It said there is no reason for the court to deal with substantive issues unless the amendment is going to be ratified and become part of the Constitution.
The Reagan administration opposes the ERA. But sources in the Justice Department have indicated a disagreement between the political appointees who support the administration position and the career lawyers who would prefer that Justice ask the Supreme Court to summarily reverse the Callister decision on technical grounds. Although that would leave some of the substantive issues unresolved, it could be done very quickly by the court and would be seen as a major ERA victory.
In addition to the June 30 deadline, the ERA also faces state deadlines as legislatures begin to adjourn. For example, the Utah legislature adjourns Jan. 31; Virginia, March 13, and Florida, March 18. Georgia could adjourn as early as Feb. 18, and legislatures in four other unratified states will have adjourned by the end of April.
The Callister ruling raised a storm of protest, not only from ERA supporters but also from some constitutional scholars. They think that the judge, a member and former high official of the Mormon Church, which officially opposes the ERA, overstepped his judicial bounds into an area of decision-making properly left to Congress.
Technically, the Idaho decision is not legally binding on other states, but ERA proponents believe it could have a psychological effect.
Stanley Brand, counsel to the clerk of the House of Representatives, said, "The Idaho court has eviscerated the power of the House with respect to the process of amending the Constitution. States will read Callister's decision as law until or unless it is modified or overturned. I don't see how the process can run its course unless it's clear what the ground rules are. That hurts Congress's power to control the amendment process."
ERA advocates like Smeal are especially bitter that the campaign has been slowed down at this point by a judge who is affiliated with one of the major opponent groups. Callister did not resign his high-level leadership position in the Mormon Church until several months after he was assigned the case. The Justice Department filed a motion in 1979 to force him to step down because of a conflict of interest, but Callister refused.
"Literally hundreds of thousands of people in our country have participated in this campaign," Smeal said last week, adding that they "will feel badly cheated if in the 1982 legislative session the debate on the ERA is irreversibly distorted by the decision of a single federal judge."
Smeal said that NOW organizers believe the ERA will win or lose by a "razor-thin" margin, and she pointed out that in previous years a change of as few as six state legislators' votes nationwide would have made the difference.
Whatever happens with the appeal process, NOW plans to go ahead with the ratification campaign. Since the 1978 approval of the time extension, not a single state has ratified. But NOW leaders say they see hopeful signs nationwide and in several key unratified states.
National polls show that Americans support ERA 2 to 1. Exit polls taken in the November, 1980, election also showed that for the first time women voted differently from men. While Reagan received 54 percent of the male votes, only 46 percent of the women voted for him. Since he became president, Reagan has gotten significantly lower approval ratings from women than men.
NOW is trying to capitalize on those findings.
All over the country, Americans will soon begin to see the television ads. A long list of celebrities--from Paul Newman to Lauren Bacall--will ask for help in the fight. Unratified states will be targeted for more intensive advertising.
In Oklahoma, for example, the television ad campaign started two weeks ago. Smeal and actor Alan Alda planned to spend this weekend meeting with members of the legislature. Last week a Senate committee approved the ERA, 11 to 7, and the full Senate is expected to vote this week. The governor approves the amendment and both House and Senate leaders are sponsors.
In Florida, the NOW television ad campaign started last Wednesday, with such celebrities as Betty Ford, Alda and Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) urging phone calls to the legislature demanding ratification.
By Thursday morning, the Florida Department of Communications was calling NOW headquarters in Washington asking that the phone number for the legislature be removed from the ad. The switchboard in Tallahassee was already jammed.
Other targeted states will include Illinois, North Carolina and Virginia.
The ERA was first introduced in Congress in 1923, three years after women won the right to vote. Not until 1971 did the House finally approve it, 354 to 24. The Senate followed in 1972 with a vote of 84 to 8, sending it to the states for ratification.
In 1978 Congress decided that the original seven-year deadline was not long enough and, on a simple majority vote, extended it by about three years to June 30, 1982.
The lawsuit was filed in 1979 by Idaho and Arizona against the General Services Administration, which had not removed from the ratification list the states that had attempted to rescind.
The Justice Department was called upon to defend the GSA, and NOW later joined as a plaintiff.
Five states have attempted to rescind their ratifications, a concept not even mentioned in the Constitution. Up to now, Congress has not recognized the right of a state to rescind, and proposed legislation providing for rescission has failed.