ASK STATE AND FEDERAL LEGIslators if they believe that legal rights should be extended or withheld on the basis of sex. Most would probably say no, and many of them would be lying. Adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution remains a feminist fantasy. Its simple declaration of fairness--"Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex"--cannot win congressional support. The ERA has been introduced in every session of Congress since 1985, only to be buried in committee. This year's sponsors are Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York and Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts; but don't expect passage anytime soon.
Sometimes it's hard to believe that in the early 1970s the ERA was actually approved by Congress and sent to the states for ratification. (A constitutional amendment must be ratified by three-fourths of the states.) Feminists famously failed to win ratification--they lost by three states--after a hysterical public debate that focused on legal absurdities like mandatory co-ed bathrooms. At the time, a majority of Americans professed support for the amendment. But as political scientist Jane Mansbridge observed in her astute book Why We Lost the ERA, support for equality itself was rather shallow. Polls demonstrated that a majority of Americans who endorsed the ERA also embraced traditional gender roles: A 1977 survey showed that more than half of those in favor of the ERA agreed that it was more important for a woman to support her husband's career than to enjoy her own. Almost two-thirds believed that a wife should not work outside the home if her husband could support her and jobs were limited.
Equality has become much more respectable in the past two decades, even as feminism itself has fallen out of fashion. That's the message young women send when they decline to identify as feminists but subscribe to feminism's goals. According to a recent survey commissioned by American Demographics, only 34 percent of adolescent girls call themselves feminists, but 97 percent believe that men and women should be paid equally, 92 percent believe that a woman's "lifestyle choices" should not be limited by her sex, and 89 percent agree that a woman does not need a man or children to be successful.
YET SUPPORT FOR FEMALE INDEpendence doesn't necessarily translate into activism or demands for an ERA. A 2000 Gallup poll that asked women about the challenges they face in their daily lives found that only 4 percent of them are "most concerned" about equality and discrimination. Gallup reported that money, family, and health are women's top priorities--which is hardly surprising. Some feminists will argue that women would have fewer money, family, and health problems if they enjoyed full equality; and in theory, many women might agree. According to a 1999 poll by Gallup, only 26 percent of Americans believe that men and women are treated equally and 69 percent believe that society treats men better than it does women. But when people answer a pollster's questions about their daily struggles, they're not thinking theoretically. Equality is an abstract, long-term goal compared with paying the bills.
Besides, the ERA suffers from the common belief that it is no longer necessary, given the growth of civil rights law in the past 30 years. That's one irony of progress: As acceptance of sexual equality grows, active support for the ERA declines. …