They've reintroduced the Equal Rights Amendment, and I'd feel better about its chances if they hadn't also reintroduced some of its excess baggage: the misrepresentations and overstatements and non sequiturs that left even the amendment's supporters mystified.
What do I have in mind? Listen to the words of Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.) who, with Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.), is a chief Senate sponsor of the new bill. "Opponents of ERA say it is not needed," Packwood said in announcing his plans to reintroduce the measure. "They say times have changed, laws have changed and equality has been achieved."
To which I offer two comments: First, the menace to ERA is not so much its "opponents" as it is the lukewarm support of the majority of voters who favor it; second, the problem is not the patently erroneous view that "equality has been achieved," but the reasonable doubt that ERA will achieve it.
Can even its most ardent supporters believe, with Packwood, that passage of the amendment will "insure women equal pay and equal opportunity in jobs" and "permanently end discrimination in the workplace"? Or that it will "secure the legal and economic rights of homemakers and guarantee that marriage (will) be viewed as a legal partnership between husband and wife"?
No one can disagree with the Oregonian when he says that "women should not have to fight for equality every two or four years with changing political winds" or that sexual fairness "should not be subject to the capriciousness of politics." But then he adds:
"Equality is a basic constitutional right which must be guaranteed all Americans. A constitutional amendment is the only permanent insurance women will have of equal opportunity in education, employment, credit, retirement plans and numerous other areas."
Well, if "equality is a basic constitutional right," why is it necessary to amend the Constitution to achieve it? And if the amendment is "permanent insurance" of all these good things, what is the point of the second section of the proposal, which authorizes Congress to pass "appropriate legislation" in furtherance of equal rights? If ERA would guarantee equal rights, the additional legislation would be unnecessary. If Congress passes the "appropriate legislation," ERA is unnecessary.
At least in pragmatic terms. And that is why the women's movement has had such difficulty in selling ERA. The great majority of Americans aren't arguing with the principle, for the simple reason that the principle of equality without regard to sex is unarguable. What is missing is any sense of practical urgency, any sense that passage of the ERA would resolve the very real problems that women face in this country. The polls accurately reflect the widespread support for the principle. What they do not reflect is the fact that the support is tepid, based on the understanding that ERA's value is less practical than symbolic.
But symbolism is important. It would have been pragmatically useful, for instance, if Congress or the Supreme Court had decided, 120 years ago, that blacks were to be considered as covered by a Constitution whose framers clearly did not have them in mind. But to have that coverage certified in a series of constitutional amendments was much more reassuring--even though it did not solve the myriad problems of racism.
Similarly with women. Did the framers mean to exclude women when, in describing the office of the president, they said, "He shall hold of- fice . . ."? I don't know. I do know that the country found it reasonable to adopt a special amendment to grant women the right to vote. It seems reasonable to me to make clear, by constitutional amendment, that all the rights, protections, privileges and duties of citizenship are free of sexual restriction.
There is simply no point--and a good deal of danger--in pretending that ERA will solve all the problems of sexual discrimination. It won't. But it will make clear that women are fully included in the Constitution. Isn't that enough reason to pass it??