Like most discoveries, it seemed at first like some kind of mistake. Catherine Timlin and Alice Bennett, night students at the Whittier College School of Law in L.A., began by wondering why constitutional amendments—and the Equal Rights Amendment in particular—had only seven years to be ratified by the states. The women decided to do a joint paper on the subject for their legislature class, and after weeks buried in case books and old Congressional Records came to an astonishing conclusion. "What it added up to is: If Congress can impose an arbitrary time limit in the first place, they can remove or extend it at will," says Bennett. Why seven years? "There were no precedents, so it's anyone's guess."

That was more than a year ago. Their grade on the paper was a respectable 84, but to lawyers their work presented only "an interesting theoretical construct." The authors were hardly more hopeful. "After all," says Bennett, "we were only second-year students. We were sure we had missed something—that people would laugh at us."

But in the end, no one did. After reading the thesis, Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women, fired it to New York Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, who suggested the prominent D.C. law firm of Lippman & Hart turn it into a full legal brief. The result: a powerful and perhaps pivotal new argument behind the ERA lobby's breakthrough in the Senate. This month the ratification deadline was granted an extension until 1982.

"I never had such a good idea before," says Timlin, admitting neither she nor Bennett is the sort to make law review, much less history. Timlin, 33, is a welfare worker by day, and Bennett, 36, supervises a program for handicapped children. Still, they managed to survive the first year (unlike many other women who started with them), and the paper's success has given their second-career drive a much-needed boost. "It's hard, hard work when you have another job all day," observes Timlin, who, like Bennett, is single. "You lose a lot of friends." Or, as in their case, you gain a nation of allies.