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.''
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.
That kind of stocktaking, she recalls, occurred during the Equal Rights Amendment campaign in Florida, when many women met with legislators for the first time. In the process, ``They realized that leaders are just human beings. They thought, `I could do it too - and better.'''
But campaigns are not won on determination alone. Raising money - lots of it - continues to be a formidable barrier for women seeking office.
``It costs an obscene amount of money to be a candidate,'' Morgan says. ``Then we wonder why it's all white males.'' By contrast, she notes, candidates in New Zealand are forbidden to spend more than $1,000 on a parliamentary campaign.
Beyond any immediate legislative gains, women's representation in Congress may be crucial during the 1992 reapportionment.
``It's one of those things a lot of people have not focused on,'' Ireland says. ``But it's critically important. Those people who are elected in 1988 and 1990 will be the ones who will be drawing the lines for legislatures and congressional districts. That will make a tremendous difference for the next 10 years. Women need to be sitting at the table.''
Some activists, disenchanted with the two-party system, believe a feminist party could offer valuable leadership. NOW plans to study the feasibility of such a party, Ms. Yard says, but she remains ``very skeptical. The third-party route in this country has not worked.''
Instead, she and others favor working within existing political structures to build a strong independent force.
``We should do for women in 1988 what Jesse Jackson did [for blacks] in 1984,'' says Yard. ``He got thousands of black people to register and vote for the first time. He spoke to the issues.''
One issue close to her own heart is the Equal Rights Amendment, recently reintroduced in Congress. ``It is unthinkable not to be pushing the ERA in this bicentennial year of the Constitution,'' she says.
Not all activists agree. Sonia Johnson, who in 1979 was excommunicated from the Mormon Church for her support of the ERA, now says, ``Like the Civil Rights Act, ERA may not make a whole lot of difference. Something inside of me says, `No, no. That's not the way we're going to change patriarchy at its core.'''
Other change must come through judicial strategies, Ireland says. In child support collection, for instance, she proposes that female lawyers handle one pro bono case a year.
Religious institutions, she continues, must become ``less oppressive'' to women who want ordination.
And in business, professional women must help employers understand the cost-effectiveness of parental-leave policies and family-related benefits.
Finally, Ms. Johnson adds, women need to understand their own importance. ``We worry too much, wondering, `What will men think? To be free, we must take our eyes off the guys.''
Other leaders warn that an adversarial approach to men - us vs. them - will be counterproductive.
Women are surrounded by ``a sea of white males,'' Yard says. ``They're part of our lives. We're not going to answer our problems by rejecting them.''
Nevertheless, she insists, ``The time has come for us to put our muscle to work to elect us.''
That task, leaders acknowledge, will require patience - and long-range vision.
``It's not a short-term project,'' Ireland says simply. ``I expect to get very old doing this.''