Posted Online: Jan. 25, 2013, 3:02 pm

ERA loss just slowed women down

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By Don Wooten

An item in last week's news took me back 40 years: to 1973, when I began my first year in the Illinois Senate. On entering this new career, I walked in to a raging argument over the Equal Rights Amendment.

ERA had been passed by Congress, which then gave the states 10 years to concur. Two-thirds of the states had to agree for the Equal Rights Amendment to become part of the Constitution.

As I recall, it had passed the Illinois Senate the year before I got to Springfield.

Sen. Esther Saperstein sponsored the senate resolution which breezed through the chamber 91-4. But the House failed to pass the resolution before the session ended.

The process had to be started all over again. Unfortunately, that delay gave opposition to the amendment time to build and what was previously an easy vote became a contentious one.

That was when Phyllis Schlafly rode her strident opposition to national fame. She was one of several who lobbied the state capitol, bringing throngs of women to plead for a "no" vote.

I met with several such groups in my office and quickly discovered that what I considered primarily an economic matter -- equal pay for equal work -- had far-ranging meaning and resonance in the minds of its opponents.

Women spoke tearfully of the disastrous effect equal rights would have on hearth and home. They believed that the measure would cause marriages to founder, increase divorce, pave the way for same-sex weddings, encourage a proliferation of unisex toilets and -- the clincher -- oblige women to fight alongside men in trench warfare.

The trench warfare image was a strong one. All of us were familiar with the brutality of infantry combat in World War I: we had seen it in movies. The idea of women being stuck for months in those water-filled, lice-ridden holes, under endless bombardment, having to go over the top to die, entangled in barbed wire, cut down by relentless machine gun fire was too much to bear.

War tactics were changing even then -- less reliance of fighting from trenches -- but the image persisted. There seemed to be little point in arguing the matter. I simply told them that the things they feared could easily happen with or without ERA. What it would accomplish was a quicker path to economic parity, and I was for that.

It was a close fight, but ERA was defeated.

Yet all the things those women feared have come to pass. You know the story as well as I.

And just last week, the last barrier crumbled. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that women will soon be allowed to serve in combat: something they already have been doing, unofficially, in recent years.

It's not going to happen for a while. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have until mid-May to develop an initial implementation plan, and until 2016 to make the change complete.

Even then, there will be some exceptions, and inclusion in battle situations will apply principally in the army and marine corps. Still, it's a big step and one for which women in the military have long campaigned.

Ironically, one of the strongest arguments for the change is somewhat akin to the ERA rationale: an opportunity for better pay and promotion. If women can compete for certain combat roles, they will earn more money and increase their chances for advancement in the ranks.

It's been a gradual change. Recent defense authorization bills have called for reviews of the subject and just last year, the army opened up nearly 15,000 combat jobs for women.

Panetta's decision is simply the final blow to the 1994 bar against women serving in combat. Stretching the revision over three years gives military leaders ample time to decide what physical and other standards women must meet for specific combat roles.

It would seem that service with Navy Seals and the Army's Delta Force might still be closed to women, but who knows how all this will shake out by 2016.
I suspect that most people don't realize the extent to which women are involved in our wars. Over 283,000 have been deployed worldwide.

According to Congressional Research Services, "In approximately 10 years of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, over 800 women have been wounded and over 130 have died."

One serious problem with women in the military is the incidence of rape. Over 3,000 sexual assault cases were reported last year.

One benefit of women being eligible for promotion and becoming part of the chain of command is that such incidents will be reported and punished, making a dangerous profession slightly less so.

Defeating ERA didn't stop the changing role of women in America. It just slowed it down a bit.
Don Wooten of Rock Island is a former state senator and veteran broadcaster;