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Activists Seek to Bring ERA Back to Life

There's renewed interest to resurrect the amendment, but Missouri backers aren't sure what it would do.


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Time warp?

Listen in on the rhetoric buzzing through Missouri's capital these days, and you might begin to think so.

Here's a state senator earnestly proclaiming that we must add the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution "if this country is to be great and stand tall."

There's Phyllis Schlafly, the ERA's arch-foe, warning that the amendment would legalize same-sex marriages and promote "abortion on demand."

Here's praise for righteous symbolism. There's scorn of constitutional clutter. Coed bathrooms. Women in combat. Wasn't this all settled two decades ago?

Well, yes.

But then again, maybe not.

Most activists--most everyone, really--thought the ERA died in 1983. It had been ratified by 35 states but needed 38 to make it into the Constitution. The original ratification deadline had come and gone. So had a three-year extension. And Congress was not inclined to give ERA backers any more time. Even the Supreme Court pronounced the amendment dead.

Now, a few stubborn dreamers are attempting to revive it.

They consider the original 35 ratifications still valid. By that logic, all the ERA needs to win a spot in the Constitution is approval from three more states. Focusing on Missouri--but targeting Illinois and Virginia as well--ERA activists are pushing hard to get those three additional ratifications.

They take courage from precedent: In 1992, Congress revived an amendment that had languished for more than 200 years by ordering that the ratification tally pick up where it had stalled back in George Washington's day. In other words, Congress decided that states' 18th century votes still counted. New states then jumped to ratify. And the amendment--which requires a roll-call vote before Congress can grant itself a pay raise--is now part of the Constitution.

That episode gave ERA activists hope.

After all, they reasoned, if an amendment can be resurrected after two centuries, why not after two decades?

"It takes a long time to win the big ones, and this is a big one," said Roberta Francis, who leads a national effort to ratify the ERA. She then quoted women's suffrage champion Susan B. Anthony: "Failure is not an option."

It is, however, a distinct possibility.

For the three-state strategy has several potential flaws.

For one, Congress set a time limit--long since expired--on ERA ratification. (The pay raise amendment had no such deadline.) Congress could, presumably, pass new legislation reopening the ERA for debate. But then it might be hard to make the case that the original 35 ratifications should count.

Another hitch: Five states that ratified the ERA in the '70s later passed resolutions taking it back. ERA boosters insist it's illegal for a state to cancel its ratification. But that position, again, would be open to legal challenge.

Then there's the issue of public support.

In the 1970s, the ERA stirred strong passions. However, it has since dropped out of view.

Kelly Anthony, a Missouri college senior trying to rev up student support for the ERA, acknowledges that "even some of my feminist friends don't know what it is." And while Francis says she's sure most Americans are behind her, she couches her conviction this way: "They absolutely would care--as soon as they knew about it."

One group in the know is the Missouri Legislature, where ERA sponsors in both the House and the Senate are confident they can bring ratification to a vote this spring. The ERA has some powerful backers in both chambers. But it also has detractors who see the whole debate as a dispiriting waste of time.

"Maybe I'm from a different generation, but I feel that women have all the opportunities in the world," said state Rep. Vicky Hartzler, 39, a Republican. "Instead of sending women the message that we need to support [the ERA] because we're still victims, we should be telling them that the past is behind us, we have a bright future and it's time to move forward with confidence."

ERA advocates counter that women can't stride ahead with confidence until their rights are guaranteed.

Sure, there are federal laws granting women equal access to education or equal pay for equal work. But those are laws, not constitutional guarantees. A future Congress could repeal them. Or gut the funding that supports them.

"Only by including [women's equality] in the Constitution can we grind it into the bedrock of our national policy," said Missouri House Speaker Steve Gaw, a Democrat.

Beyond that symbolism, however, even the ERA's most ardent backers find it tough to articulate just what the amendment would accomplish.

"It isn't concrete, not something you can see will immediately help me in my lifetime," said Mary Mosley, who heads Missouri's ERA lobby. "It's more the principle of the thing."

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