NOW regroups to maintain its force for feminism

Exactly one year ago, when Geraldine Ferraro broke the political sound barrier by becoming the first woman on an American presidential ticket, the mood among members of the National Organization for Women (NOW) was triumphant. NOW had orchestrated the push, and Walter Mondale's choice appeared to many observers to signal a new ascendancy both for women and the feminist organization. Today that mood is considerably more restrained. During the group's annual three-day convention here last weekend, leaders and members alike self-consciously regrouped to find new ways to be an effective force for feminism in today's social and political climate.

The sometimes abrasive, sometimes confused search for a revitalized purpose ended Sunday afternoon with the election of Eleanor Smeal to the presidency. Mrs. Smeal, a political consultant in Washington, D.C., who has served two previous terms as president of the group, wants greater activism, higher visibility, and a more militant stance against the growing conservatism of the country. Her opponent, incumbent Judy Goldsmith, advocated an approach based on ``multiplicity'' and broad consensus.

The difference in approach can be partly explained by a difference in style that pits Mrs. Smeal's feisty, crusading intensity against Mrs. Goldsmith's cool pragmatism. But beyond personality the two approaches also symbolize a deeper confusion that surrounds the organization in particular and the women's movement in general.

Under the conference theme ``Organizing for the Future Now,'' speakers talked optimistically about ``a new vision'' and ``the hour of the American woman.'' But at the same time they spoke somberly of ``our movement's moment of truth'' and ``a critical period for feminism.'' Phrases like ``generate a change,'' ``strike new postures for new times,'' and ``change the direction of this organization, the movement, and the world'' suggested a mood that was both hopeful and aware of new challenges.

Some of the mixed signals stem from what Mrs. Goldsmith and others describe as a normal course of development for a social-change movement.

``In the beginning you get rid of most of the really disgusting, blatant forms of discrimination that are on the surface and that are the most easily seen and therefore the most easily dealt with and removed,'' she said in an interview.

``But that's a very difficult point because then people say, `Well, what do you women want, anyway? You've got everything. You've got a woman up in space, you've got a woman running for vice-president -- what more do you want?' What is left,'' she continues, ``is the bedrock, which is much tougher, much harder to get at, and much more difficult to see.''

She cites comparable worth, or pay equity, as ``an excellent example of bedrock. It is also an issue that has a dollar sign on it. This is where women always come up short, and where the fight for equality gets particularly hard.''

There is general agreement between Mrs. Smeal and Mrs. Goldsmith on ``bedrock'' issues that must be confronted. Mrs. Smeal offers a list that includes pay equity (``If a woman is underpaid, it's cheating the whole family''), child care (``an issue we must move to the central agenda of the feminist movement''), and the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1985 (``equal educational opportunities at the college level are very threatened right now'').

And, of course, conservatism.

``The opposition to women's rights is painting a picture that high fertility rates and large families are good,'' Mrs. Smeal told the Monitor.

``I think there is a message in America's propaganda right now at the policy level that birth control is dangerous. Almost every birth control device is under attack. There's also a very subtle, insidious message that if you're happily employed, you're missing something. But they're talking about a traditional life style that's not tenable. Who could support all those children?''

``What feminism must be about,'' she says, ``is adjusting to modern life for men and women, and not romanticizing the past for women and thereby keeping the culture and civilization down.''

The heart of NOW's current membership, according to Mrs. Smeal, consists of women between the ages of 25 and 45. It is a base she plans to broaden by mounting a recruitment campaign to attract college women, whose youth and untested idealism tend to make them skeptical of a need to belong to a feminist organization.

Olga Hayward-Ryer, a recent graduate from Lafayette, La., typifies Mrs. Smeal's new target. Armed with a master's degree in political science from Yale University, Mrs. Hayward-Ryer approached an oil company in Louisiana to discuss potential opportunities in management training.

Instead, she says, ``I was asked how many words a minute I could type. It was very humiliating. Two years ago I was an idealist, but no longer.''

As a black, Mrs. Hayward-Ryer also understands another kind of injustice: racial bias. ``Women are excluded from so many situations,'' she says. ``Minority women face double discrimination.''

Why, then, are NOW convention delegates overwhelmingly white?

``I wish there were more blacks here,'' she admits. ``Traditionally, a lot of minority members do not join organizations that they don't see as serving their interests. I don't think NOW has picked up the right issues. There are so many issues NOW has to address that race has not been in the forefront as much as it should be.''

But if diversity has become part of NOW's strength, it may also explain part of the organization's current confusion. Special interests such as gay rights and pornography threaten to set up so many tributaries that the main stream gets lost.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, a law professor at Georgetown University and a conference speaker, has summarized as well as anybody the present dilemma.

``Twenty years ago almost anything you did made a difference,'' she notes. Now, she believes, women are in a ``watershed'' period.

``Great movements must reinvent themselves,'' she says. ``To sustain themselves, movements must not only grow, they must change -- not only because the times have changed, but because we ourselves have changed the times.''

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