DISSENT OVER ERA. NOW to plan next moves and pick new leaders

The question of what are equal rights in the '80s will be analyzed at the annual convention of the National Organization for Women (NOW) as it meets in Philadelphia at the end of this week. The bicentennial of the Constitution is the backdrop for the meeting of the women's rights group. And members are firm about saying that in the past 200 years, women have not been fully included in American democracy.

The topics to be discussed include employment issues, abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), pay equity, the feminization of poverty, day care, parental leave, gay and lesbian rights, AIDS, and reproductive technology.

But while most NOW members agree on goals and specific targets, such as opposing the nomination of Robert Bork to the US Supreme Court, there continues to be a split in the group over what type of leadership best serves the feminist organization. These issues will spill over into the election of NOW national officers and into voting over proposed changes in the group's bylaws.

The group hopes to revive the ERA, which failed in 1982 after falling three states short of ratification. But even on this issue, there is dissent about the best tactics to take. Today, as members of Congress gather in Philadelphia to celebrate the Constitution's anniversary, NOW leaders hope to get lawmakers to sign a document backing the ERA.

``The 200th anniversary of the writing of the Constitution is the perfect opportunity to correct the mistake the Founding Fathers made,'' says Jeane Clark, NOW spokeswoman.

But some NOW delegates question putting emphasis on the ERA when there are other pressing issues facing women.

Kathleen Corradino, past president of Minnesota NOW, wonders about the wisdom of pushing for the ERA when it is questionable that there is sufficient leadership in state legislatures to get it ratified. Shouldn't NOW concentrate on getting that sort of leadership in the 50 states, she asks.

Two different styles of NOW leadership are being offered on the slate: that of supporting the organization's national agenda, and that of a stronger grass-roots approach.

Molly Yard, NOW's national political director, is the handpicked nominee of outgoing president Eleanor Smeal. On issues, she does not sound much different from her opponent, Noreen Connell, president of New York State NOW.

Fran Lee, head of Miami NOW, supports Ms. Yard because she has liked her methods and tactics. And she supports the proposed bylaw changes as modernizing and streamlining the organization. What Ms. Lee does not want to see is the administrative workings of NOW becoming bogged down in so many different perspectives that things don't get done. ``We really are a grass-roots organization, but we need to become more effective.''

The issue of grass roots is one that supporters of Ms. Connell continually bring up. ``We are terribly concerned about maintaining grass-roots strength; we're not in favor of a centralized organization,'' says Diane Rulien of Portland, Ore., NOW. She says there has been little support from the national organization on Oregon projects, and that the state needs more backing.

``We had a referendum last fall that would have eliminated state funding for abortions,'' says Ms. Rulien. ``We beat it, through a coalition of groups and door-to-door campaigning. National NOW forked over too little, too late.''

``Isn't it possible that there was not enough strong grass-root activity on the [ERA]?'' says Rulien. ``Perhaps we would have won if there had of been.''

Connell herself says there is too much concentration at the national level on ``Ronald Reagan, Jerry Falwell, and the Pope.'' ``We should not so focus on the far right that we do not put pressure on the mainstream,'' she says, pointing to institutions like the Democratic Party.

There are other areas besides opposing the Bork nomination where Connell and Yard are in accord. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado, who will speak at the convention, is a favorite of NOW leaders, who hope she will run for the presidency in 1988.

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