The Equal Rights Amendment, the great unifying symbol of the women's movement, will officially die Wednesday, two or three states short of ratification.

But the long fight over the amendment has produced a potent political force that may haunt ERA opponents and alter the nation's political dialogue for years to come.

The great irony about the decade-long ERA drive is that it prospered and expanded in defeat, creating a sophisticated and effective political organization that can now be used to reward its friends and punish its enemies.

ERA supporters have learned to organize precincts, raise millions of dollars, lobby legislators, stage rallies, run candidates, attract media attention, and put together major ad campaigns.

"We're building a tremendously big political movement. We've never been so strong," says Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women.

Congressional supporters say they intend to reintroduce the amendment promptly, and Smeal insists her organization will continue to fight for it.

"We'll keep going. We have no other agenda," she says.

Each month since January, NOW has raised $1.3 million through its direct mail, telephone and television appeals. It now has a 300-member paid staff, 6,700 full-time volunteers, two offices in North Carolina, two in Illinois, three in Oklahoma, four in Florida -- the states ERA proponents concentrated on in their effort to get the last three ratifications -- one in New York and two in California in addition to its national headquarters in Washington.

"If ERA didn't do anything else it got women involved in the political process in a way they've never been involved in before. They've learned how to raise money, use polls and run campaigns," says Roger Craver, president of Craver, Matthews, Smith & Co., a leading direct mail firm.

Craver expects the intensity of emotion over the ERA to increase even more after June 30, and translate into mushrooming donations to NOW for political activity.

"This political giving will be nothing short of astronomical," he says. "I've told Ellie Smeal that it would not be unreasonable to target another $3 million for the fall election."

By contrast, Craver expects that the Democratic Party, another one of his clients, will net only $2.7 million this year.

Some politicians recognize the long-range potential of the movement. They see the ERA as one of those rare symbolic issues, the kind that galvanizes people for and against it.

Gov. James B. Hunt integrated his cabinet and the state Democratic organization into the ERA lobbying effort in North Carolina, for example. And when thousands of ERA supporters gathered on the capitol grounds in Raleigh on June 6, Hunt, dressed in a symbolic green blazer, was the keynote speaker.

North Carolina isn't a hotbed of feminism. Three Confederate statues sit on the capitol lawn where Hunt spoke, and the state legislature didn't approve the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote, until 1971.

But it was smart politics for Hunt, who plans to run against conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in 1984, to identify with the ERA. Slightly more than 50 percent of the voters in North Carolina and the nation are women, and a recent Louis Harris poll found voters in the state support ERA by a 63 to 34 percent margin.

Equally important to Hunt were the scores of potential campaign workers in the crowd. Many were proven veterans of the unsuccessful ERA fight eager to again do battle.

"We've got the next election in our hands," Joan Neal, 30, of Greensboro, N.C., said that day. "We're both desperate and determined. We're here because this is a national movement and we want to be part of it."

Within weeks of the ERA's defeat in Oklahoma last winter, for example, members of the state Women's Political Caucus were distributing leaflets against ERA opponents in their home districts.

The leaflets didn't mention the ERA. Instead, they reported that various state senators had voted to increase utility rates, and were "against providing fire drills in public schools," "for corruption in state government," and "against people."

In Illinois, Gov. James R. Thompson, a Republican, is taking the opposite tack from Hunt. Thompson, an ERA supporter, has antagonized ERA forces by failing to support a change in legislative rules which now require a three-fifths majority for passage of the amendment.

In addition, his reelection running mate, House Speaker George Ryan, is a leading ERA opponent who says, "I brought the Phyllis Schafly vote to the ticket."

Thompson says that the ERA won't be a major factor in his campaign against former senator Adlai E. Stevenson III, the Democratic nominee for governor. But a recent Chicago Tribune poll found he had 23 percent less support among women than men. Thompson's pollster, Robert Teeter, has found the gap to be much smaller, about 8 percent, and he says the ERA is "not an issue that affects Thompson in any way."

Thompson, a moderate who once harbored presidential ambitions, says he believes the gap is due to the nation's economic problems, and not the ERA.

Ironically, Hunt also sees the ERA fight in economic terms. He believes that the recession and Reagan's budget cuts have hit women far harder than men and increased support for ERA.

"Over 55 percent of the women in North Carolina work outside the home," he says. "These women get paid less, and promoted less. North Carolina working women get paid, on the average, 61 cents for every dollar a man gets. Women with college degrees generally make less than men with eighth grade educations."

It is hard to overstate the depth of emotion that ERA leaders feel against Thompson, and other Republicans in Illinois and elsewhere. Former first lady Betty Ford has addressed this point.

"I'm concerned about the future of our party. Women are leaving the Republican Party in considerable numbers," she said in one speech. "Little by little the Republican Party has been turning its back on women's rights."

Thompson would have to look no further than his own cabinet. His director of public assistance is Jeffrey C. Miller, whose wife, Linda Miller, a lifelong Republican, is president of the Illinois NOW.

"At this point there is no way I could support the Republican Party," she says. "I think the Republican Party is making a very large mistake on ERA, and it will live to regret it."

"The ERA isn't going to go away because we've learned an awful lot about playing the game," said Miller. "Our campaign goes through November, and out of the campaign will grow a political movement unlike anything you've ever seen."

This movement isn't made up of starry-eyed young radicals. The leaders and footsoldiers in the ERA effort are, for the most part, well educated, middle-class women in their 30s and 40s.

They are, in short, people who vote. And they aren't lightweights.

Many of them are not totally satisfied with efforts Democrats have made for ERA. But they have moved away from the Republican Party, which had included the ERA in its platform for four decades and removed it in 1980. More important, Republican state legislators have repeatedly blocked it.

All 10 Republicans in the North Carolina Senate, for example, voted earlier this month to table the ERA, in effect killing it for the year.