A Good Offense

"What do we want? ERA! When do we want it? NOW!"

It's a chant that echoes across the decades from the past. It's almost audible when you look at the large, faded color photographs that hang in NOW's National Action Center in Washington.

There are the parades, the demonstrations, the women, men and children in wide white bellbottoms, pushing strollers with adorable "ERA babies." God knows when those dedicated activists had time and energy to conceive children.

But the chant would have been just as appropriate April 9, at the Rally for Women's Lives. When C-SPAN had to come up with something to scroll across the screen to describe the diverse issues covered under the theme of violence against women, they wrote simply, "Women's Rights Rally."

There, smack dab in front of the Capitol building that is presently held hostage by the run-amok right wingers were 250,000 protestors. Many of them were high school and college students whose only experience with the Equal Rights Amendment is what they have read in history books.

Standing side-by-side with them were some of us half-baked, thirtysomething, easing-into-middle age activists who got in on the ERA during its last gasps in the early '80s. We went to demonstrations to demand an extension for the time Congress had given the states to ratify the amendment. Despite all the big moments and rallies that transformed NOW into a multi-million dollar a year powerhouse with a strong political action committee, there is no convincing some of us that the loss of the ERA was anything other than a major setback.

Also standing with us at the April 9 rally, or wisely sitting in the shade, were more "seasoned" activists who have never for a minute lost their zest for the amendment. To them we lost that battle, but we live to fight on other fronts and will win this just cause some day. Preferably in our lifetimes.

Who is right? Is the brief assertion of the ERA, ("Equality of rights shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex"), a valiant historical effort, a lost cause or a perfectly appropriate challenge heading into the 21st century?

Consider the view of Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo. While being interviewed for a documentary on the women elected in 1992's amazing sweep, Schroeder said that if the ERA had passed, 30 of the new laws Congress had enacted in one year alone would not have been needed.

However, Schoeder also predicts a new amendment isn't likely to pass Congress until we increase the proportion of women serving there from the 10 percent serving today to around 30 percent.

We've got our work cut out for us. In the 1994 election right wingers succeeded in keeping women's issues off the table. Tax cuts and term limits were the buzzwords. Abortion rights, women's rights and anything remotely resembling civil rights were verboten. It's no wonder that women stayed home in record numbers, and we lost some of our best feminist friends on Capitol Hill.

For far too long now we have been defending our rights, instead of championing them. This is more image than reality, but consider the indelible images cast of us in the 1980s and early 1990s. Defending clinics. Defending civil rights for lesbians and gays. Defending ourselves against charges that we are champions of "special rights" and "reverse discrimination."

The rich, old, white able-bodied and apparently straight men who run Congress know all too well the political truth of the sports slogan, "The best defense is a good offense."

In fact, they now enlist women to do their dirty work. Christina Hoff Sommers takes on the Ms. Foundation's "Take Your Daughter To Work Day," of all things, in an op ed in the Wall Street Journal. Letters to the editor flow into major dailies implying that feminists exaggerate statistics on violence against women. As though any amount of violence is acceptable.

Thankfully, we get many reminders that we're on the right side. It may be a jarring phone call. "My daughter was just raped by a cab driver. They say unless I get to the jail right away they're going to let him go. I can't get there for an hour. Can you help me?"

It may be the high of a mass rally, with Grammy Award-winning rap singer Cheryl "Salt" James (of Salt 'N Pepa) leading us in a chant with the challenge, "Come on, I want to hear what 250,000 strong women sound like."

Or it may be a sweet encounter at a conference. At one NOW products booth, an old Black man scanned the T-shirt slogans with a warm smile, then nodded and said, "Your freedom is my freedom is what I tell my wife."

To make this "the land of the free and the home of the brave" for the baby girls, the little girls, the nieces, the granddaughters in our lives we have to be sage, savvy, creative and crafty come July when we reconsider the ERA.

Do we go for the bold old language, the more complex yet clear Canadian model or create something new and different from either of them? How can we elect more friends? Heading into the United Nations conference on women next fall in Beijing, how do we position ourselves to champion our own rights and freedoms here at home as well as those of sisters in other countries?

What better time to tackle these challenging questions than fresh from that April rally's strong show of strength and unity? It's time to go on the offensive again -- in the feminist sense of the word.

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