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Published: Saturday, 3/31/2007

The ERA: right or relic?

THE Equal Rights Amendment is back before Congress, continuing an 84-year debate over whether women's equality must be enshrined specifically in the United States Constitution.

With women fighting - and dying - in the Iraq war, and with a woman serving as speaker of the House of Representatives, it's a good bet that many Americans believe the issue already has been settled as a practical matter.

But reality often collides with symbolism, and some women fervently believe that their status in society will be forever subject to political whim unless it is spelled out in the Constitution.

That belief has firm grounding because the 1787 document that created the federal union is inherently sexist, reflecting the assumptions of a male-dominated society now 220 years past. The word "she" does not appear in the wording, while all the elected officials - the president, vice president, senators, and representatives - are referred to as "he."

Because women have gained social equality and acceptance in virtually every occupation and type of job under current statutes, arguments undoubtedly will be made that the ERA is not necessary. But such changes have come grudgingly and slowly, and issues persist - equal pay with men for equal work, along with subtler forms of discrimination in employment.

The proposed amendment has a new name - Women's Equality Amendment - but its salient text is the same as that introduced in Congress every session since 1923:

"Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

To Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York, sponsor of the measure in the House, the issue is simple. "The amendment is not about partisan politics. It is about fairness and equality. Equality is not a slogan, or a fad. It is a fundamental right."

The ERA was born of the suffrage movement, three years after women gained the right to vote in 1920 under the 19th Amendment. But it wasn't until 1972 that it passed both houses of Congress by two-thirds votes and was sent to the states for ratification.

The 1972 amendment carried a ratification deadline of 1979, later extended to 1982. But by then it had been approved by only 35 of the 38 states necessary, and five states rescinded their ratification. The new version has no deadline.

Now the legislative process starts anew, with Democrats now in control of Congress making no secret of their pride in being able to reinstitute a 25-year goal.

Another aspect that hasn't changed is the opposition. Anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly still leads the charge, although the old arguments that passage of the ERA would result in women in combat and same-sex public restrooms seem quaint.

These days, Ms. Schlafly and other opponents claim that adoption of the amendment would wipe out laws against abortion funding and would eliminate Social Security benefits for wives, widows, mothers, and grandmothers.

That's a stretch, but there is little doubt that the status of women in 2007 has moved well ahead of what it was in 1982.

The question backers of the ERA have to confront in the renewed debate is whether society at large is comfortable enough with the way things are that the amendment has become unnecessary.

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