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    'Feminist fantasy' in for a Florida Legislature retro-flop

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 20, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE -- The bra still burns bright -- metaphorically speaking.

    The Equal Rights Amendment has come back, resuscitated in the very chamber where it died in 1982. Back then, a Florida Senate dominated by retrograde Democrats voted down the ERA, ending the national drive to add it to the U.S. Constitution. At the time, the amendment had been ratified by 35 of the required 38 states. This year a Legislature dominated by retrograde Republicans will probably shoot it down. Again.

    Former Senate President Gwen Margolis, back in the Senate as Florida's Ghost of Progressivism Past, is a sponsor of the ERA resolution. She was castigated by ERA opponents as one of its "bra-burning" ringleaders in 1982. She voted "yes." Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings, also a former Senate president but never one to apply heat to her foundation garments, voted "no."

    Both of these formidable, intelligent women served in the Florida Legislature at a time when the old boys, good or otherwise, Democrat or Republican, often referred to female colleagues as "little lady" -- or something worse, once they got liquored up on the annual Legislative Trail Ride. Even after 20 years, Margolis continues to articulate the need for the ERA. In a recent letter to the governor, she takes him to task for his bratty comment that the ERA was some sort of "retro" fad, "like wearing bell bottoms." She says, "To trivialize the fight for equality in our constitution by equating it to a fashion trend is insulting. Although women have made much progress since the 'bell bottom' era, without a bedrock guarantee of equal rights in our Constitution that progress is threatened."

    For her part, Jennings, the state's highest-ranking female official, seems to be suffering political memory loss. She knew why she didn't like the ERA in 1982, but when a Miami Herald reporter asked her how she stood now, she said she needs "to do some research" on it.

    Perhaps the lieutenant governor thinks the ERA, left alone by itself in the dark all these years, has mutated into something monstrous. It hasn't. Here's what it said then and what it says now: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex."

    "Gender" might be a better word (people get hung up on "sex") but that wouldn't make any difference to those who have been trying to destroy the ERA as long as Margolis and others have been fighting for it. Phyllis Schlafly of the Kinder Kirsche Kuchen Eagle Forum has stopped claiming that the ERA would wreck civilization by mandating unisex bathrooms, but she continues to insist that it would press-gang women into the military. Last year, Schlafly wrote that despite "30 years of feminist fantasies," war was a job for "real men."

    You wonder if Pvt. Jessica Lynch considers herself a "feminist fantasy."

    Still, what Schlafly calls "our unflappable ladies in red" bring anti-ERA arguments likely to appeal to the hardshell conservatives of the Florida Legislature, mainly that it could allow for abortions on Medicaid and sanction gay marriage. These are more effective hot buttons to push than, say, the ERA as an assault on old-fashioned wife-and-motherhood, given the images the whole world has now seen of women toting rifles in Iraq. The horrors of taxpayer-funded abortions and homosexual unions resonate with voters who get most of their information from Christian Coalition newsletters and talk radio.

    Perversely, the ERA's most traditionalist enemies find themselves using examples of women who have become astronauts or CEOs to show why the amendment is not needed. And those on the pro-ERA side have to acknowledge that women have done great things despite the lack of spelled-out constitutional protection. Nonetheless, the battle that began in 1776 when Abigail Adams asked her husband John to include women's rights in the founding documents (he refused to tamper with what he called "our Masculine systems") isn't over. Proponents of the ERA say that overall, women earn about 75 cents to the dollar compared to men, while men in female-dominated professions such as nursing often make substantially less than their female counterparts.

    Trying to pass -- or kill -- the ERA doesn't fall neatly along party lines. House Speaker Johnnie Byrd shares Jeb Bush's disdain for the ERA. But Republican Sen. Alex Villalobos, who used to oppose the amendment, has changed his mind. Perhaps he recalls 1982, when the ERA died on a 22-16 vote, and Sen. Pat Frank said, "Go home and tell your daughters what you did today." Villalobos now has a daughter of his own.

    Some Republicans are worrying out loud that while there's an argument that America doesn't need the ERA any more, the Republican Party needs centrist women voters. Maybe sneering at a constitutional amendment that enshrines gender equality isn't the best way to attract them. Imagine the campaign ads suggesting that while we're happy to let them serve in Iraq, the Jessica Lynches of the nation could face fewer opportunities and lower salaries than men once they come home.

    The ERA will die in the Florida Legislature. Again. So in the election campaigns of 2004, there will be a lot of lawmakers on record voting against equal rights. It will be interesting to hear them explain why to their constituents, to their wives, to their sisters, to their daughters.

    -- Diane Roberts, a former Times editorial writer, is a professor of English at the University of Alabama.

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