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Uphill fight forecast for Equal Rights Amendment

Support reduced in House, Senate

An estimated 10,000 people marched on the Capitol building in Springfield, Ill., to support the Equal Rights Amendment on May 16, 1976. Democrats are trying to revive the measure with the goal of having House and Senate votes on it before 2009. (ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE)

WASHINGTON -- Democrats face long odds in their effort to revive an Equal Rights Amendment that failed three decades ago, even if unisex bathrooms are no longer much of a fear factor.

Now dubbed the Women's Equality Amendment, the measure has much less support now than when it sailed through Congress in 1972. It died years later when only 35 states -- three short of those needed -- endorsed it.

What supporters hope will become the 28th Amendment to the Constitution states in its key line that "equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

With Democrats controlling Congress for the first time in a dozen years, "prospects are better now than they have been in a very, very long time," Terry O'Neill, executive director of the National Council of Women's Organizations, said after the constitutional amendment was introduced in the Senate and House last week.

Representative Jerrold L. Nadler, Democrat of New York and chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, said he plans hearings on the modern-day ERA. Sponsors said their goal is to get House and Senate votes on it before 2009.

"I would love for the American people to see who votes against women's equality," said O'Neill.

In 1971 and 1972 the amendment swept through Congress, with votes of 354 to 24 in the House and 84 to 8 in the Senate. Over the next five years 35 states ratified the measure, but even with the extension of the seven-year deadline for action to 10 years, no other states concurred. The first ERA was introduced in Congress in 1923, three years after women got the vote. The last ERA-related vote was in 1983.

The new version has fewer than 200 original cosponsors in the 435-member House, and one of them, Representative Ralph M. Hall, Republican of Texas, dropped off the day after it was introduced, leaving only eight GOP signatures on it. In the Senate, the measure has only 21 sponsors, none of them Republican. Constitutional amendments must be approved by two-thirds' majorities in the House and Senate, and then be ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures.

O'Neill said those numbers reflect that Republicans are "farther to the right than they were in the 1970s."

Conservative groups have been quick to mobilize their opposition, underlining the abortion and same-sex marriage issues that resonate with Republican lawmakers.

"We believe the ERA is dead," said Jessica Echard, executive director of Eagle Forum, the conservative grass-roots group founded in 1972 by Phyllis Schlafly as she led the fight against the original ERA. "We'll see if Congress really wants to get back into this."

Among the main opposing arguments in that Vietnam War era, beside the images of men and women having to share bathrooms, was that the ERA would subject women to the draft.

The draft issue "is still very much alive" in today's wartime America, Echard said, as are concerns that an ERA would be used to codify abortion and same-sex marriage rights.

A proliferation of doctors, lawyers, and stockbrokers who are women, and the fact that women now receive nearly 60 percent of the college degrees awarded show that women don't need an ERA to succeed, she added.

Not so, says Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York, who has sponsored ERA proposals in six different sessions of Congress. She noted that women still get only 77 cents for every dollar that men are paid, that only 3 percent of federal contracts go to women-owned firms, and that the poverty rate of older women is nearly twice that of older men.

Without a "clear and stricter judicial standard on sex discrimination," women are in danger of losing ground, she said, citing challenges to Title IX, the federal law that opened academic and sports opportunities for women, and compensation for the families of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

It is an equal rights issue and has nothing to do with abortion, Maloney said.

Abortion opponents don't see it that way.

Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, sent letters to lawmakers asserting that abortion-rights groups are using state ERAs to promote tax-funded abortion on demand.

He pointed to a 1998 decision by New Mexico's supreme court that looked to the state's ERA in ruling that abortion shouldn't be treated differently from medically necessary procedures sought by men.

Johnson said his group would urge rejection of the amendment unless it contains "abortion-neutral" language stating that nothing in the article "shall be construed to grant, secure, or deny any right relating to abortion or the funding thereof."