An era later, some Florida legislators still pushing for ERA

Here's an idea whose time has not yet come in Florida: passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

You remember the ERA.

Just like you remember rotary-dial phones, shag carpet and a loaded term that helped to define the era: "women's lib."

It seems as if an era has passed since those three letters polarized Florida. It was the 1970s, after all.

Thousands of demonstrators wore dueling ERA Now and Stop ERA buttons. There were fears that women would be forced into combat and that we would be using unisex bathrooms.

Thirty-five states ratified the ERA, three short of the number needed to amend the U.S. Constitution. Florida was not among them.

Democrats ran the Legislature in the 1970s. Gov. Reubin Askew's annual push for the ERA became a tradition, but it always went down to defeat, often on a very close vote.

In 1977, the Senate blocked it on a 21-19 vote. Two years later it was killed again as Dempsey Barron, the legendary Democratic senator from Panama City, led the opposition.

Barron, who became a Republican after leaving office, later conceded that he was wrong to oppose the amendment. As former Times associate editor Martin Dyckman recounts in his book, Reubin O'D Askew and the Golden Age of Florida Politics, Barron realized his mistake after watching as women soldiers fought and died in the first Gulf War in 1991.

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Twenty years later, some Democratic lawmakers are still fighting to pass the ERA. They will launch the latest effort with a rally Tuesday at the Old Capitol, and though they won't say it aloud, they know their cause doesn't stand a chance.

"Those of us who believe in the simple idea that women and men deserve equality under the law think this should be filed every year until we pass it," says the sponsor, Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston. "Who honestly believes that there isn't still discrimination on the basis of sex?"

The Legislature is a different place than when Dempsey Barron roamed its hallways. Republicans are in control, and more women are in office than in the bell-bottomed, disco-crazy 1970s.

They include Sen. Ronda Storms, a Republican from Hillsborough County who put herself through college and is a wife, mom, lawyer and legislator.

As Storms said Monday, she did all of that without the benefit of the ERA.

"I think it's anachronistic," Storms said of the Equal Rights Amendment. "It's hard to argue that I don't have opportunity. It's hard to argue to my daughter that she doesn't have opportunity."

What holds women back can't be fixed by a law, Storms said, because it's the way our society works.

She recalls a male colleague asking her how she was doing and she said, "I don't know. How many loads of laundry did you have to do to get out of the house?"

Rich remembers taking part in pro-ERA marches in Tallahassee nearly four decades ago. It's that history that keeps her fighting.

"I'm ashamed and embarrassed that Democrats didn't get this done when we were in charge," Rich said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

An era later, some Florida legislators still pushing for ERA 10/17/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 17, 2011 9:58pm]

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