Twenty years after the presumed demise of the Equal Rights Amendment, political activists who believe the U.S. Constitution should protect women better are working to resurrect the ERA.
They face an uphill battle. Although Illinois and Florida lawmakers are currently considering ratifying the amendment -- 35 states have already done so, three short of the three-fourths required legal problems may doom the effort.
The ERA would make any law that discriminates against women null and void. "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied by the United States or by any state on account of sex," it says.
The U.S. Congress approved the amendment in 1972 with the two-thirds majority needed to send it to the states for further action, and set a 10-year time limit for ratification. But the ERA was three states short of ratification in 1982 when the deadline expired.
That history notwithstanding, ERA backers got the Illinois and Florida legislatures to place the issue on their agenda this year: an Illinois House committee endorsed ratification in February, and Florida's Senate Judiciary Committee okayed the amendment in April. Pro-ERA groups in Arizona and Oklahoma are also pushing for ratification.
But many difficult hurdles remain before any of these states reach the point of legislative action. And even if three of them ratify the amendment, it would appear to be 21 years late.
ERA backers disagree. A national coalition of women's groups led by the ERA Campaign contends that even though the deadline has passed, the 35 existing ratifications are still valid.
They base their argument on congressional precedent for accepting an amendment after 203 years. That measure, involving congressional pay procedures, passed Congress in 1789 but it was not ratified by the states until 1992. It is now the 27th Amendment to the Constitution.
Jesse Choper, University of California constitutional expert, said, "To say [ERA] can still be ratified despite the fact that the Congress tacked on a term limit would be, in the minds of conventional viewers of the matter, wrong. It would be unusual."
ERA backers also have a fallback position. A bill pending in the U.S. House, sponsored by Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., would verify ERA ratification when three more legislatures pass it. H.Res.38 was referred to the House Judiciary Committee.
In March, U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., introduced legislation that would start the ratification process over. Those measures have gone nowhere.
ERA has also met resistance in Missouri and Virginia. ERA supporters say chances of the amendment passing in Missouri's Republican legislature this year are bleak. And ERA never made it out of a GOP-led Virginia Senate committee earlier this year.
ERA backers say the amendment is needed to bring equality in the workplace because women on average are paid thousands of dollars less annually than men with equal qualifications in the same jobs.
"The benefits are that we will not have to continually battle to persuade legislators, courts and governments that we are entitled to rights equal to those of male citizens," said Jennifer Macleod, coordinator of the national ERA Campaign.
Leading politicians doubt the revival movement will go anywhere. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), the president's brother, said he believes it has about as much chance as a return to the dress fashions of the 1970s. ''It's like going back and wearing bell bottoms. To open up a debate like that would generate a lot of heat and not a lot of light," Bush told the Miami Herald.
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said ERA is surfacing in Florida and Illinois now because of "redistricting-- so there are new players in the state legislatures-- and the fact that it's a new session. It's the 21st century, and they're determined we pass it and it not be forgotten."
Fifteen states have never ratified the ERA: They are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia.
Twenty-one states built equal rights for women into their state constitutions