Hopes of passing the Equal Rights Amendment before its ratification deadline were all but destroyed today as the North Carolina Senate voted to kill it.
ERA supporters vowed to continue their fight, but North Carolina is one of three states where they mounted a major lobbying campaign to beat the June 30 deadline, and the emotional defeat here was considered devastating.
"It's all over for North Carolina, and it looks to me like it's all over for the country," Rep. Louise Brennan, a longtime supporter, said sadly. "It is a black day for North Carolina."
The proposed amendment to the Constitution has been three states short of passage since 1977, but ERA strategists had hoped a victory here would put pressure on Illinois and Florida, two other target states. Oklahoma is considered a more remote possibility.
The ERA campaign here was intense and sophisticated. Led by Gov. James B. Hunt, the Democratic Party, organized labor, teachers, thousands of feminists and dozens of church, business and civic groups have taken part.
There were television ads, telephone banks, door-to-door canvasses, and a public opinion poll conducted by Louis Harris, which showed that state voters approved of ERA by 61 to 30 percent.
Despite these efforts, the Senate killed ERA in a series of parliamentary moves that took less than five minutes today. The key vote was 27 to 23 in support of a motion to table the bill permanently.
There was not a single word of debate. When the motion passed, hundreds of ERA supporters clad in white and green in the galleries sat stunned in momentary silence before breaking into an angry chant: "ERA Won't Go Away. ERA Won't Go Away."
On the steps outside the chamber, Terry Schooley, state ERA countdown campaign coordinator, accused senators of being afraid of debating the issue. "This is outrageous that women in this state and country are not being granted rights under the law," she shouted to a crowd of several hundred supporters. "We've worked long and hard for this, and we're never going to go away.
There were tears of disappointment in many eyes, and some women openly sobbed.
"I always believed that in a democracy a majority of the people rule. This vote has destroyed my faith in that," said Katherine Germuska, a National Education Association lobbyist. "This was the one state where I believed there were honorable people who would do the honorable thing."
The timing of the vote was significant. It came one day after thousands of ERA opponents descended on the legislature for a day of lobbying. Hundreds of ERA supporters also showed up, swelling the crowd to an estimated 5,000, the largest ever to observe the legislature in a single day.
Many of the opponents were Christian fundamentalists. Gary Wagoner, superintendent of the New Life Christian School for Girls in Hamptonville, N.C., held a sign above his head that read: "Eve Ruined Adam."
He said he opposed the ERA because he doesn't believe that men and women were created equal. "Women need to be protected by men because they can't protect themselves."
ERA supporters had hoped to build momentum for their drive with a march and rally in Raleigh Sunday, one of four scheduled that day around the country. The rally still is to take place, and the National Organization for Women vowed to press for an ERA vote in the lower chamber of the legislature.
But ERA leaders in the House said today they oppose that strategy and maintained it would be pointless to consider a measure already defeated by the Senate. In their view, the ERA is a dead issue here.
At a news conference after the vote Hunt said he was exploring ways of keeping the ERA drive alive, including putting it to a referendum vote in the state's June 29 primary election. "I'm not giving up hope. This is not the end," he said.
However, the governor added that "everything humanly possible" had been done to lobby for the ERA and yet supporters had been able to change the minds of only three senators during the last two years.
According to NOW, the focus of the ERA campaign now shifts to Illinois, where seven women have been fasting for 18 days, and to Florida.
Florida Gov. Bob Graham today called a special session of the legislature to consider ERA and other matters. It is to begin June 21, just nine days before the ratification deadline.
Steve Hull, the governor's press secretary, said Graham knew about the North Carolina vote before he decided to call the special session. Hull said, "He believes the vote in North Carolina was a setback, but he doesn't think it is fatal."
NOW President Eleanor Smeal said in a telephone interview that her organization will press for as many votes as possible on ERA, in part to put legislators on record on the issue. "It's a war of nerves," she said. "We can keep pushing; they can keep ducking."