The proponents of the Equal Rights Amendment have run out of time and alibis. They can argue that they have been treated unfairly by some politicians; and if the political system is biased against their cause, it is for the good reason that it should be biased against any change so great as to require a constitutional amendment. Amending the Constitution requires not a simple majority, which ERA has, but a kind of consensus, which it has failed to obtain.
Yet in another sense the proponents of ERA have won. If they were setting out to change the way people actually live, they have succeeded. In the early 1960s, when Betty Friedan was writing "The Feminine Mystique," 38 percent of women were in the work force; in 1981, 52 percent were. And that figure is almost certain to rise. More than two-thirds of women age 20 to 45 are in the work force now, and there is little reason to suppose they will drop out later.
The women's rights movement has succeeded in changing our manners as well as our work habits. Ms. is now an acceptable--sometimes required-- honorific, and we say "him or her" a lot more than we used to. In millions of kitchens across the land, men whose counterparts 20 years ago would not have thought of doing the dishes are now taking their turns, and in millions of classrooms children are being taught from "non-sexist" primers. 4 Of course, not everything has changed. The traditional idea of a women's place has proven strong, particularly for those women who have chosen to be housewives--and who fear they have given up much by doing so. The women's rights movement has not proven to most Americans that traditional sex roles are entirely invalid, and its excesses have helped to motivate ERA's opponents--not only male legislators, but housewives mobilized by that most unhousewifely of persons, Phyllis Schlafly.
But women torn between the traditional role and what they say is economic necessity, but is actually the maintenance of a standard of living their parents would have considered luxurious, have increasingly chosen the latter. This is evident when we look at the major metropolitan areas with the higest percentage of working wives: Dallas-Fort Worth and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver and Atlanta, booming, fast-growing cities where many residents come from tradtion-minded rural areas, but where 75 percent of wives are in the work force. Wives are notably less likely to be working in such cities as Pittsburgh and Buffalo, which have had little economic growth and new jobs. Working wives, then, have been an important part of the economic boom in the Sun Belt, but one suspects there is still great tension there, as well as opposition to the recognition that ratification of ERA would give to a pattern of life people have chosen but still feel uneasy about.
The proponents of ERA seem to have had the civil rights movement as a model: change the law and you will change attitudes and behavior. But in fact attitudes and behavior have changed while the law has stayed the same. I have a hunch--and so far it is only that--that the same thing will happen to those adversaries of the women's rights supporters, the right-to-life opponents of abortion. They are visibly failing now in their efforts to get Congress to outlaw abortion or even to enact the half-a-loaf constitutional amendment that would allow states to outlaw abortions. But they may be succeeding in making abortion so unattractive and unappealing-- as it is when you think hard about it--that it may become, as apparently it did in Japan, an option less often chosen. So far, that has not happened: the abortion rate roughly doubled in the 1972-77 period, and figures are lacking to say whether it has yet leveled off or fallen. The right-to-life movement, like the women's rights movement, may learn the limits of politics, and the power of ideas, in influencing people's personal lives.