George Will

WASHINGTON -- Liberals, dolled up in love beads and bell-bottom trousers, have had another bright idea, one as fresh as other 1970s fads. Sens. Ted Kennedy and Barbara Boxer and Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, high-octane liberals all, have asked Congress to improve the Constitution by adding the Women's Equality Amendment, which, like the Equal Rights Amendment before it, says: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

Although it was first introduced in Congress in 1923, the ERA went nowhere until March 22, 1972. Then Congress sent it to the states to be ratified or rejected by March 22, 1979, the standard seven years stipulated to assure that there is a contemporaneous consensus for any constitutional change.

Thirty-five years ago, as now, the argument for the amendment was a pastiche of peculiar thoughts: It was needed to "put women into the Constitution," and for the expressive function of "raising the nation's consciousness." March 1972 was a year after the Supreme Court cited the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment when invalidating a law that involved discrimination on the basis of sex. And March 1972 was 10 months before the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade.

The full inclusion of women in America's regime of rights was accomplished in the 20th century without an ERA, a constitutional redundancy that would have added nothing to the guarantees of equal protection of the laws and due process for all "persons." And what mature person thinks the Constitution should be cluttered with consciousness-raising pieties or affirmations, on the theory that, by some mysterious causality, the social climate will be improved?

Beginning March 22, 1972, many state legislators -- mostly men -- acted cavalierly, in several senses of that word. Hawaii ratified the ERA that day, in 32 minutes. The next day Nebraska ratified it, but so hastily that it made mistakes and had to repeat the process. Six states ratified in the first week, 20 within three months, most without hearings.

But by 1977, the drive had stalled. Thirty-five states had ratified it, three short -- not really; read on -- of the required three-fourths. So ERA supporters, their constitutional carelessness apparent in the ERA itself, turned to rigging the ratification process.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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