As Time Runs Out for the E.r.a., Eight Women Stage An Ordeal by Hunger in the Illinois Capitol

UPDATED 06/28/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/28/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

Several of the women are in wheelchairs now. One has collapsed and been rushed to the hospital. Another has fainted and fights frequent nausea. They have been taunted by opponents who have ripped open candy bars under their noses; one group of men devoured a sumptuous catered dinner only feet from them. They have been told that their actions are quixotic and medically dangerous. Yet the pro-ERA hunger fast by eight women in the rotunda of the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, which began on May 18, is now entering its final and perhaps most dramatic stage. "This is not a protest," says one of the eight, Sister Maureen Fiedler, 39, a Roman Catholic nun. "It is a religious witness."

Their hope is that the moral force of their suffering—a tactic shared by Ireland's IRA hunger strikers—will inspire an affirmative vote from Illinois, one of the three states that must ratify the now expiring Equal Rights Amendment before its June 30 deadline. "People have come by the thousands, telling us how much they're feeling," says Sonia Johnson, 46, who stirred an earlier cause célèbre in 1979 when she was excommunicated from the Mormon Church because of her support for the ERA. "Anyone who says equal justice for women is dead is wrong."

Every weekday the women are dressed by their supporters (they are too weak to do so themselves) and are driven from a Springfield motel to the capitol in a van rented by Gloria Steinem. There they sit quietly—or lie on reclining wheelchairs—for three hours, or as long as their strength permits. The women have said that they are obsessed with fantasies of food—their dreams range from chicken soup to chocolate mousse—but they confine themselves to a gallon each of bottled water a day.

Many people are worried about their health. Johnson has been hospitalized three times for chemical abnormalities in her blood; she is now confined to a wheelchair. Down from 122 pounds to 99, she has difficulty raising her arm to shake hands. California businesswoman Zoe Ann Ananda, 33, has lost the most weight—32 pounds. Three weeks ago her vision began to blur. "Toxins began to drain from every orifice," she recalls. "My breath was terrible."

Chicago weight-loss specialist Dr. Arthur Kunis warns that the women's bodies may now be consuming protein from such vital organs as the heart and liver. "They are not fasting," he says. "Fasting is a controlled intake of nutrients. This is starvation." (To counteract ill effects, the women now drink a potassium-and-sodium supplement.)

Though weakened and gaunt, the women have made clear that they do not intend to fast to the grim end. "It is not our purpose to die," says Dina Bachelor, 40, a Los Angeles grandmother. "We've chosen to do a spiritual fast of changing hearts toward righteousness. It is a life-giving process."

Most observers say that the ERA itself is dead in Illinois. The House has already rejected the ERA 10 times and seems unmoved by the sight of eight emaciated protesters under its roof. "I'm concerned for their health, but I'm not going to change my vote," says House Speaker and ERA opponent George Ryan. "That's not the way to legislate." With one lawmaker, the fast has been counterproductive. Republican Sen. Forest Etheredge, an ERA supporter, vows to withhold his "Yes" vote until the women abandon their protest. "I deplore the development of a media event on the front porch of Illinois by women trying to manipulate the legislature," he says.

All the women look forward to ending the fast by June 30. But spokeswoman Johnson promises that even if the ERA is defeated, there will be other protests. "Women see hope not just for the ERA but for the women's movement," she says. "The women's movement has just begun."

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