By Cheryl Wetzstein

The Democratic takeover of Congress should revive interest in an issue many Americans think is settled -- adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment -- as new bipartisan groups pursue the Republican-leaning states needed for its ratification.

"I think a great way to commemorate the elevation of the first woman speaker would be to elevate all women in the Constitution," said Rep. Robert E. Andrews, New Jersey Democrat and one of nearly 200 ERA proponents in the House.

Supporters say that despite advancements for women's rights since the ERA's official death in 1982 -- primarily prohibitions against sex discrimination -- the constitutional amendment is needed because women lag in career advancement and pay equity.

In 1972, for instance, the ratio of female-to-male earnings for full-time, year-round work was 58 cents on the dollar. Last year, it was 77 cents on the dollar, according to Census Bureau data.

"The equal treatment of women should be made a pillar of our society," said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, New York Democrat. "Unlike under the previous majority, I think we will at least have a discussion of rights that should exist and that most people in fact believe are already in the Constitution."

The one-sentence ERA -- "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex" -- has been promoted since the 1920s to ensure that women are treated on an equal basis with men, especially in the workplace.

The ERA was passed by Congress in 1972 but declared dead on June 30, 1982, when only 35 of the 38 necessary states ratified it.

Now activists are working to get three more state legislatures to ratify the ERA, and they expect a Democrat-led Congress and historical precedent to ensure its enactment.

"Once the American public really wants it, it will be had," said Jennifer Macleod, national coordinator of the ERA Campaign Network.

The rationale behind this "three-state strategy" is that Congress accepted the 27th "Madison" Amendment, which concerns congressional pay increases, after a 203-year ratification period and can therefore accept more ERA ratifications even after the deadline.

To which legendary ERA opponent Phyllis Schlafly said: "I think they are dreaming. I think they're beating a dead horse."

Opponents, led by Mrs. Schlafly, founder of Eagle Forum, helped sink the ERA with warnings about a military draft for women, unisex toilets, same-sex "marriage," and loss of family and workplace protections for wives, mothers and widows.

The ERA has its veteran supporters, such as the National Council of Women's Organizations. But in recent years, at least two new groups have emerged with the mission of getting three more state ratifications.

The two new groups are purposefully bipartisan, recognizing that Republican ERA support is a necessity: Of the 15 unratified states, Illinois is the lone "blue" state; the other 14 are "red" states that sweep from the Carolinas through the South, and into the West, with Arizona and Utah. The most vigorous ERA campaigns are in Florida, Missouri and Illinois.

"It's a myth" that Republicans don't support the ERA, said Idella Moore, who founded WWW.4ERA.org in Atlanta in early 2003.

Republicans have a long history of "doing the right thing" -- they're the party of the Emancipation Proclamation and a Republican cast the deciding vote for women's right to vote, said Lynn Fountain, a Georgia research scientist, Republican voter and board member of WWW.4ERA.org.

The Nov. 7 midterm elections showed that Republicans "don't have a very good image" with women right now, she said. "Wouldn't you like to fix that?"

Ms. Macleod of the 6-year-old ERA Campaign Network in New Jersey said her group is strongly bipartisan, but she agreed that a new Congress led by California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker of the House, offered fresh opportunities. Under Republican-led committees, pro-ERA bills were "locked up for years," she said. New leadership "will surely make it more likely, more possible to move it ahead."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, is a leading ERA proponent, as are both Mr. Andrews and Mrs. Maloney, who also support a second strategy that calls for restarting the process completely.

Many Americans will be puzzled to hear about a new ERA battle, partly because they think the issue is over and partly because many of them think the ERA is already part of the Constitution.

For example, at least 22 states have either adopted ERAs or constitutional prohibitions against sex discrimination, according to a 2005 a Rutgers Law Journal article.

The death of the ERA was celebrated in June 1982 -- it's "dead for now and forever in this century," Mrs. Schlafly told supporters, according to a 1982 Time magazine article -- and implied by the U.S. Supreme Court in October 1982, when it declined to take up an ERA-related lawsuit because the issue was "moot."

However, Ms. Moore and Ms. Macleod say if three more states ratified the ERA, Congress could certify it by a simple majority vote.

Mr. Andrews' bill addresses this point: "If three states ratified [the ERA], the courts would sooner or later get the question of whether the prior ratifications were valid. And I want the House to go on record and say, 'Yes, they are,' " Mr. Andrews said last week.

This article was mailed from The Washington Times (http://www.washingtontimes.com/national/20061128-122909-8311r.htm)
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