It was vintage Erma Bombeck, but the 53-year-old housewife, columnist and best-selling author had not really come to Salt Lake City to make people laugh. Only a decade ago she dismissed hard-core women's libbers as "Roller Derby dropouts and Russian pole-vaulting types." Now an ardent supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and a member of the President's Advisory Committee for Women, she is among the feminist movement's most potent—and least dogmatic—persuaders. "We've got to get sex out of the gutter and back into the Constitution where it belongs," she told the National Student Nurses' Association convention in Utah. "The ERA cause—'equality of rights under the law'—may be the most misunderstood words since 'one size fits all.' "
Bombeck may be risking some misunderstanding herself. Her thrice-weekly column currently appears in 900 newspapers, and her Aunt Erma's Cope Book had a near-record advance printing last fall of 700,000 hardcover copies. Describing herself as "a pair of white socks in a pantyhose world," she usually limits her public utterances to nothing more controversial than static cling. She feels strongly enough on this issue, however, to court trouble. "I liken the ERA to a war in which they forgot to invite the housewives," she explains. "I volunteered. No one approached me and said, 'Bombeck, get out and lend your name to this thing.' "
The potential of her appearance to stir up the natives was accentuated by the nurses' decision to meet in the Utah capital, national headquarters of the Mormon church. The city became a focal point of ERA controversy when church elders excommunicated feminist Sonia Johnson (PEOPLE, December 3) for her outspoken support of the amendment. Bombeck took on the elders without hesitation. Expressing sympathy for any woman caught in a religious crossfire—"I'm gratified that I don't have to choose between God and my conscience"—she bluntly dismissed as "illogical" the Mormon contention that the ERA would endanger the family. "If there were a formula for having a wonderful family," Erma declared, "and that formula said 'get rid of the ERA,' I'd probably be first in line. But I don't think you can use the ERA as a dumping ground for all the problems the family is having."
"Not what you would call your slick ERA speaker," Bombeck turns from serious matters—day care, inheritance taxes, Social Security benefits for divorcées—to lighter fare ("If God had meant for women to go into men's shower rooms, He would have clogged our sinuses") and then back again. Though they are dissimilar in most respects, she knows that a major competitor in her quest for the support of the silent majority is anti-ERA militant Phyllis Schlafly. Would Bombeck consider a public debate with Schlafly? "You can't talk to Phyllis on a one-to-one basis," Erma says. "She does a monologue on you. She does a good job of selling herself and has a strong power base. If I left this earth tomorrow, there would be a few million to take my place. If the same thing happened to Phyllis, I can't think of a replacement."
Bombeck is more uncommon than she modestly claims. Born to middle-class parents in Dayton, Ohio, she earned a B.A. in English from the University of Dayton and married classmate William Bombeck, a onetime high school principal who now manages his wife's finances. After college Erma wrote women's page features for the Dayton Journal Herald, then quit to spend 10 years as a housewife. "I stayed home to have children [Betsy, 26, Andy, 25, and Matt, 21] because the paper objected to my having them in the city room," she says with a grin. "Despite what I've written about them, I absolutely loved having kids and raising a family. But at the age of 37 my responsibilities began to level off. That's when I began to look around at what it was all about and where it was going."
Concluding that she was "too old for a paper route, too young for Social Security and too tired for an affair," Bombeck began writing a column for a local weekly. For her material, inevitably, she drew on her experiences with three kids, three dogs, 40 tropical fish, 25 chickens, "28 oversexed ducks" and three horses—one with special orthopedic shoes. Nowadays Bombeck has a part-time secretary and a cleaning woman for her nine-room house in Paradise Valley, Ariz., but still knows "the thrill of replacing the spindle on the toilet paper roll." She keeps a rubber chicken in the silver serving dish on her dining room table to counterbalance creeping sophistication. Writing is work, she points out. "Six days a week, 8:30 to 3:30," she says. "Five days when I'm not writing a book. And I still wind up going to the market three times a day."
Though she downplays her importance as a member of the President's Advisory Committee ("Really, I'm picked for the public appearance and show business part of things"), a different appraisal comes from fellow committee member Esther Landa, former head of the National Council of Jewish Women. "Bombeck is too shy to admit that she's the one who told the committee to concentrate on the ERA a year ago," says Landa. "When she has something to say, people listen." What's Erma's motivation? "I'm doing it for my kids," she says. "It will be important to them. It's also a great feeling to be a part of history. I wish," she adds, only half in jest, "that they could put this on my tombstone: 'She got Missouri for the ERA.' "
I would classify myself as a nonviolent mother of three unplanned children. I've been married to the same man for 30 years, with whom I've never had a meaningful conversation in my entire life. I iron by demand, have a daughter who is 26 years old and has no curiosity as to how to turn on a stove. And I have two sons who make Cain and Abel look like Donny and Marie Osmond.