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NOW urges women in politics: `Eyes off the guys'

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 29, 1987

Safety Harbor, Fla.

Feminist leaders watching the Iran-contra hearings on television are posing a rhetorical question these days: What's wrong with this picture? What's wrong, explains feminist author Robin Morgan, is that the congressional scene on TV screens ``is most assuredly all male.''

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Moving women into leadership roles has long been a goal of activists around the country. Now, in the wake of the Iran-contra affair and scandals involving financiers and evangelists, feminists are pursuing that goal with renewed determination. Male-dominated organizations, they claim, are suffering from what Ms. Morgan calls ``a complete breakdown of the patriarchal system.''

``Patriarchy'' is, in fact, one of the alarms Morgan and others sounded frequently during a three-day conference of the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Here, at a quiet stucco spa overlooking Tampa Bay, noisy words like ``crisis,'' ``danger,'' and ``urgency'' flew through the humid Florida air as members sought ways to increase their influence and create ``a new vision'' of the American political system.

``We see a tremendous need for women to fill the vacuum of power, the vacuum of leadership in this country, and to provide the necessary leadership to change the country,'' says Patricia Ireland, national treasurer of NOW. ``A lot of Americans are totally turned off by what they see around them. They look at the corruption in so many institutions and think, `There's nothing I can do about it.' People feel powerless.''

As one example of how political powerlessness affects women, Ms. Ireland points to ``a bloated military budget, which means that women and children are going homeless and hungry.''

She also cites what she sees as a lack of progress on two bills now before Congress, the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Civil Rights Restoration Act. ``We're getting lip service from both parties,'' she observes.

Two weeks earlier in Cambridge, Mass., 1,200 miles to the north, Betty Friedan issued a similar warning. Speaking at a conference on success sponsored by Simmons College Graduate School of Management, she said:

``We're in a very dangerous period. There is a dangerous erosion that nobody is really standing up and fighting. Over the last years of this Administration, Title VII, on sex discrimination against women, and Title IX, on sex discrimination in education, have been steadily gutted. The machinery for their enforcement has been weakened.''

To strengthen that machinery and influence other domestic and global issues, leaders say, large numbers of women must run for office - what Ireland calls ``flooding the ticket from top to bottom.'' Currently, women's representation in Congress is growing by only 1 percent a year, Ireland claims. At that rate, she calculates, women will not achieve parity with men until well into the next century.

Yet continuing at the present pace means ``our bills are not going to pass,'' warns Molly Yard, national political director of NOW. She argues that to effect ``profound change,'' women must move into ``the full political arena.'' That includes raising important issues in primaries, supporting a female presidential candidate in 1988, and electing more women to state and national offices.

As a first step, leaders say, more activists must become aware of their political capabilities. If NOW president Eleanor Smeal and others were to go on the road as recruiters, Ireland suggests, feminists who have never considered leadership roles would take stock of their skills.