NOW's birthday: sparkling lights, sober issues

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IT may be the most lavish party the women's movement has ever staged. When the lights go down at 8 o'clock this evening in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, nearly 3,000 well-wishers will be on hand to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the National Organization for Women (NOW). And when the curtain goes up, more than 100 actors and entertainers - among them Diahann Carroll, Lily Tomlin, Melissa Manchester, and Helen Reddy - will offer a musical and theatrical tribute to two decades of feminism.

``My goal is a million members in the next decade,'' says NOW president Eleanor Smeal. ``The National Rifle Association has a million members. Why shouldn't people who fight for women's rights, instead of gun rights, have more?''

But NOW's current membership is 150,000, down from a high of 250,000 in 1982. And a telephone sampling by the Monitor of other feminist leaders indicates that just beneath the official mood of celebration, there lurks a mood of self-appraisal about this movement that was born in a basement room at the Washington Post on Oct. 29, 1966, when 300 charter members gathered with founder Betty Friedan to form what one staff member describes as ``a civil rights group for women, similar to NAACP.''

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The agenda of the '80s, as sampled in these conversations with feminist leaders, appears broad indeed. Economic issues - equal job opportunity, equal pay - continue to dominate their thinking. But some currently secondary issues seem to be gaining momentum - an increasing voice for racial minorities, for example, and a special concern for the predicament of the older woman.

The surprise development may be the number of women who see the family as the subject feminists must pay more attention to in the future.

``We have to get out on the streets and demonstrate for prenatal care, for day care, for job-sharing, for [flexible work hours,]'' says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of ``A Lesser Life: The Myth of Women's Liberation in America.''

``Many modern women cannot choose to have children because conditions are so bad,'' she says. ``That is an example of a policy area where feminism has a lot to offer, but we have to widen the agenda and speak to the concerns of mothers and children as well as to the issue of equal rights. To capture the energies of young women, the movement simply has to focus in on family issues more than it has done in the past.''

``There are a lot of late-blooming feminists among midlife and older women. Lou Glasse, president of the Older Women's League in Washington, D.C., explains: ``A lot of women are caught in the middle between their own children and their aging parents. If some women are going to take time from work either to care for children or care for the aged, the women's movement needs to look more carefully at how they can be protected from losing their own income security as a result.

``There are a lot of late-blooming feminists among midlife and older women. They may have been fairly traditional wives, and it wasn't until they went through the trauma of divorce or widowhood that they recognized that they had to become more independent.''

In looking to the future, many of these leaders find the subject of a new, more embracing agenda inseparable from the subject of a new, more embracing constituency, which breaks down barriers of race.

``I don't think there's a sufficient voice being given to concerns of women of color,'' says Judy Goldsmith, former president of NOW. ``There are a lot of walls between us that are difficult to breach.''

Juanita Kennedy Morgan, executive secretary of the National Black Women's Political Leadership Caucus in Washington, D.C., speaks even more bluntly.

``Neither black nor white recognize what is happening,'' she says. ``Black women are really not included. The white woman is accepting her because of tokenism, and because of the Supreme Court decision that has seemingly outlawed certain positions of black and white. But she doesn't accept the black woman's brains and her experiences.''

Beyond these challenges, what do activists hope for the future?

``Somewhere down the road there is going to be the Equal Rights Amendment,'' Ms. Goldsmith says. ``The time frame is problematic at the moment, but the determination to have the amendment is not, for the very simple reason that it provides the constitutional underpinning for legislation that protects women against discrimination.''

Feminist historian Susan Brownmiller says, ``I want to see women continue to make progress in the job market, in what is still called nontraditional employment: bus drivers and telephone repair people and firefighters and police people.

``We have made tremendous grounds in this wave of feminism on all the issues concerning violence against women - rape, wife battering, child abuse,'' she continues. ``I wish we could move further along on the more intricate questions of pornography and prostitution. But I don't think the country is ready yet.''

How to get from here to there? The Hollywood gala in itself may represent a change of strategy.

Smeal says, ``I want us to be on television and radio and in the media more on our own terms. Right now we can get in when we're newsmakers. I'd love us to be on with our own television and radio, more like the electronic ministry. We have to have our own advertising. With advertising you reach millions of people.''

But the movement that started at the grass roots still seems most comfortable with its sleeves rolled up, in jeans rather than glitzy gowns. ``The bulk of the women's movement is still volunteer today,'' says Smeal. ``The hours put in by active feminists is a mind-boggle. They come home from full-time jobs and work all night for women's rights. They staff phone bank after phone bank, send out mailing upon mailing. That's what's made it go.''

Even as the Hollywood hype warms up in the wings, there is a quiet confidence among some members that the women's movement doesn't need hype. Ms. Brownmiller concedes, ``There's definitely been a retrenchment.'' But she finds this normal: ``What we've demanded in terms of social change was a really tall order.... It was terribly frightening to a lot of people - the demands we made for full employment opportunity, for changing the rules within marriage, for abortion. These are major, major changes in thinking.''

Kate Millett, author of ``Sexual Politics,'' sums up the long view. ``Even though you see the American women's movement suffering temporary ill-effects from Reaganism, the women's movement in many other countries is surging ahead,'' she says. ``So if you identify with a worldwide movement of women, there's a lot of cause for optimism. This is an international phenomenon.

``The women's movement is a very strong historical force. It's been with us since the Renaissance. It's not a thing that will go away or will stop or can really be held in abeyance very long.''

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