Dear Abby's Advice for Iowa


Davenport, Iowa. -- When last heard from, the Equal Rights Amendment had been forced underground. Defeated by the Reagan Revolution, it was still reeling from a right-wing attack that had cast it as a conspiracy concocted by Feminazis who were hell-bent on forcing mothers out of their homes and into combat boots.

The federal amendment ran out of time in 1982. The last attempt to put a state ERA on a ballot failed six years ago in Vermont, when a bizarre last-minute ad blitz linked equal rights to the AIDS virus. Don't ask how.

That was then and this is now. The ERA is back on the Iowa ballot where it was defeated in 1980. Iowans are being asked to add women to the state constitution that now reads, "all men, are by nature, free and equal." If this state passes Amendment 1 on the ballot, it may well signal re-emergence of a national fight.

Much about this campaign does indeed feel like a rerun. Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum and Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority are back at their appointed posts on either side of the issue. The scare tactics of the right wing have been taken out of mothballs.

In August, a fund-raising letter from Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition carried a typically dark warning. "The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women," he wrote. "It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians." Presumably on the same day.

What is different this year is that Iowa voters may -- just may -- have been inoculated against attack ads. The pro-ERA forces are better prepared. They are spending less time answering charges about unisex toilets and homosexual marriages, and more time talking about discrimination and -- as the sign in Clinton headquarters puts it -- "the economy, you idiot."

There are now 16 states that have had an equal-rights amendment for more than a decade. The fear that an ERA would have unknown, untold effects on the law doesn't wash as easily. These ERAs haven't ushered in an era of gay marriages, or overturned veterans' benefits or guaranteed funding for abortions. Nor have they produced feminist utopias. They have however closed the loopholes in laws that allowed discrimination in jobs, health insurance and scholarships.

"We are playing a much tougher game," says Ms. Smeal. "We're not just talking about the ERA as a simple matter of justice. We studied what the ERA has done in other states and how it would impact Iowa. We're saying it means money in your pocket."

They cite examples right across the age spectrum. In Iowa college women get half the athletic scholarships of college men, working women between 45 and 54 earn only 54 cents for every dollar paid to men, and retired women receive $1.8 million less in annuities than men with the same policies.

So far the polls point to victory. But supporters take nothing for granted. In 1980, more voters counted themselves pro-ERA than anti. Right up to election day when the amendment lost by 10 points.

This September, 68 percent of the voters said they favored passage, but by last week, after a STOP ERA mailing blanketed the state with the same "parade of horribles" -- "Why are the militant feminists so rabid about passing ERA in Iowa?" -- 10 percent had switched to undecided.

Betsy Brandsgard, a Davenport activist who remembers standing at the polls on an icy and dreary day in 1980 when the amendment went down in defeat, believes it will win this time. But she warns "It's going to be close."

The antis have targeted elderly voters where support for the amendment is softest and the voter turnout is strongest. Pro-ERA groups have countered with ads, including one with native Iowan Dear Abby saying, "Take my advice and support Amendment Number 1 on November 3."

Despite all the old battle sounds, there is something refreshing about the ERA fight. For the past decade, most of the energy of the women's movement has been used to hold on to past gains, to resist the slippage and the erosion of rights. Here in Iowa, as Ms. Smeal says, "The beauty of this campaign is that we are fighting to move forward."

To quote again from Mr. Robertson's dire fund-raising letter, "First Iowa, then the nation." He had it right that time.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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