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But the ERA Gets Lost in the Shuffle

By Esme C. Murphy

In an election year when women's votes may ultimately decide who occupies the Oval Office and when 51 women, more than in any other year, are running for Congress, the struggle for the Equal Rights Amendment and the entire women's movement is in a state of disarray. While such women as Senate hopeful Elizabeth Holtzman of New York and Rep. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland are being hailed as the core of a "new girl network," feminist leaders are squabbling over methods to insure that three more states will pass the ERA before the June 30, 1982 deadline.

At one end of the spectrum stands the National Organization for Women (NOW), which spearheaded last April's drive to persuade the Illinois state legislature to approve the amendment. NOW poured thousands of dollars into the Illinois effort, organizing rallies and demonstrations that brought hundreds of feminists from around the nation to the state and drew extensive national media coverage.

NOW's efforts failed. Perhaps the greatest humiliation was that the amendment never even made it before the legislature, falling one vote shy of being considered. NOW leaders, including Beth Broderson, president of the Boston chapter, maintain, however, that because the amendment never went up for a vote, "Illinois cannot be considered a repudiation." Following the Illinois defeat, NOW strategists sat down at last month's national meeting in Texas and devised a battle plan: monitor the results of legislative races in the 15 unratified states to determine which will be the most likely to pass the ERA. The three targeted states will then be subjected to campaigns comparable to the Illinois effort.

But there is a growing perception among a loose coalition of feminist leaders that NOW's tactics will never succeed and that the vote in Illinois is a signal that if feminists want the ERA, they're going to have to go about it in a different way. "The fate of the ERA lies in the hands of 30 state legislators around the nation" who will not be moved by out-of-state "noisy women," Anne Ramsay, travelling advocate for the ERA and a member of the President's Advisory Commission on Women, argues. NOW's hell-raising in Illinois--and the wholesale immigration of out-of-staters whom legislators were quick to label "carpet baggers"--was "politically naive," Ramsay says. "It was a great demonstration of emotion, but the rallies were totally ineffective."

Ramsay advocates lobbying influential local leaders, particularly businessmen, to throw their support behind the ERA effort; she says the success of her National Business Committee for ERA is proof of policy. She dismisses NOW assertions that stronger efforts by President Carter could sway votes in crucial states. "He can do a lot," Ramsay says, "but the influence has to come from within the states themselves."

Sarah Weddington, Carter's special adviser on women, echoes what Ramsay believes. Presidential phone calls, Weddington explains, have often backfired, firming up those legislators already against the ERA. "In Florida, a state legislator got up and said, 'I just got a phone call from the President of the United Sates. But I don't listen to him. I listen to him. I listen to the voters of my district.' " And the voters said no.

While Weddington remains optimistic that three states will ratify before the deadline, Ramsay is not. From her extensive trips into "enemy territory" to sell the ERA, Ramsay's impression is that many legislatures plan to "sit on the vote," to bury it by avoidance. So convinced is she that the amendment faces death that Ramsay has asked House Speaker Tip O'Neill to set up a meeting to discuss the possibility of introducing a bill to allow for the indefinite extension of the ERA ratification on deadline.

That some feminists are thinking about such bills indicates their dissatisfaction with Carter's performance. NOW leaders complain about Carter's "half-hearted" approach to delivering ratified states--they say he has failed to use the power of the federal purse to get needed votes. Maryanne Murphy, head of the ERA task force in Boston, flatly observes the end result: "Not one state has ratified the amendment since Carter took office." Carter's opposition to medicaid funding of abortions draws similar low marks from groups like the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). Although Carter has stressed his sensitivity to women's issues throughout his campaign, NARAL doesn't buy it. "He cannot claim to be sensitive until he supports equal access for all women to abortions," says Sue Ellen Lowery of NARAL.

Weddington and other pro-Carterites vocally defend the president's work for women. Carter, they say, helped rally votes in Congress when they were needed most and has played a critical role in informing the public about what the ERA would do. They criticize the women's groups for failing to endorse the president; Carter has backed the women, they argue. The women should back Carter.

If some Democrats are angry at the groups, then supporters of independent candidate John Anderson are both angry and confused. Although both NOW and NARAL have hailed the Illinois congressman for his "enlightened" stand on abortion and his efforts on behalf of the ERA, neither group went so far as to endorse him. "It's not that we're bitter," Jonelle Davis, executive director of Women for Anderson and a former NARAL worker, insists. "It's just that we don't understand why they didn't support us."

The groups, Davis and other discontented members say, are operating in a "political vacuum." "We should have stuck to our guns," says one NOW staffer who asks not to be identified, nothing that failing to endorse Anderson has splintered both groups and alienated some members to the point where they struck out on their own. "Anderson supported us and we didn't support him," one malcontent contends. "It just makes us look indecisive and politically ineffective."

If both Anderson and Carter supporters have been frustrated by this year's non-endorsements, they are frightened by the strong support for the man they say women cannot view as a "serious candidate"--Ronald Reagan. Parroting Reagan and the Republicans' argument that not supporting the ERA is not equivalent with opposing equal rights, a small minority of articulate and intelligent women have hit the campaign trail for the former California governor.

The group, which includes people like Karen Keesling, a member of Reagan's women advisory board, and Senator Nancy Kassenbaum of Kansas, say ERA-backers have misled women into thinking that the amendment would be a panacea for discrimination. More important than the ERA, they say, will be a Republican commitment to waging a statute-by-statute battle to tear down the "hundreds" of federal regulations that discriminate against women.

If feminist forces wonder about the Phyllis Schlafly women-will-be-thrown-out-in-the-streets mentality, they can only shake their heads at Reagan supporters. "If the Republican party supports equal rights," Anne Wexler, a special assistant to Carter, asks, "why isn't it in their platform?" Incredulity is mixed with general fear; they know that anti-ERA support and the Right to Life movement run deep. While they ridicule measures like Reagan's promise to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court, they privately fear the worst. And they desperately hope that the important issues--overt social and economic discrimination (women still earn only 59 cents for every man's dollar)--will get lost in the shuffle.

No spectre disturbs feminists more than the thought of a splintering women's movement as the months tick away to the June 1982 deadline for the ERA. At odds over tomorrow's election and split over permanent matters of tactics and communication, they fear that the Illinois failure has factionalized women's groups beyond repair at a time when everyone agrees that feminists must unite as never before. Perhaps Ramsay sums it up best. For the women's movement to successfully implement its hopes, she says, "Feminists--all feminists, men and women--are going to have to learn to work together.

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