Feminist leader hits the road to recruit sympathetic candidates. Too few incumbents support women's agenda, Smeal says

The feminist movement has a new strategy. The thunder of grass-roots support and the familiar voice of Eleanor Smeal may soon echo from your local convention hall to explain it. ``We cannot go on forever begging people who are opposed to us to vote for what we want when they are not in tune with us to begin with,'' says Ms. Smeal, the former president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), in an office here at the organization's newly formed Fund for the Feminist Majority.

The idea behind this offshoot of NOW is to find feminist candidates - men and women - committed to women's equality and get them to run in unprecedented numbers at the state, local, and federal levels. Smeal calls the nationwide campaign the ``Feminization of Power,'' and says, ``its time has come.

``It's obvious to me that for a movement that is fighting for equality in job opportunity and public decisionmaking, one of the first steps is equality of representation,'' Smeal says. Women make up 53 percent of the population but only 15.6 percent of the state legislatures and 5 percent of Congress. ``But even if all the feminists that ran in the average election won,'' she says, ``we would still be a small proportion of the officeholders.''

A live, ``mass convention-style'' event with speakers, celebrities, and entertainers - which had its kickoff in a filled auditorium here last week - will make the rounds of at least 14 states trying to change that. The events have been scheduled to recruit and review candidates before election filing deadlines.

``In state legislature after state legislature, abortion rights, women's rights, civil rights, and workers' rights are under attack,'' Smeal says. ``While major corporate interests are overrepresented, the needs of ordinary people are underrepresented. If we are ever to turn around these disastrous trends, we must inspire more feminists to seek public office.''

Not all women accept this assessment, of course. ``I don't agree that the elected bodies of this land don't reflect adequately the concerns of the general populace on the wide range of issues affecting women and the home,'' says Phyllis Schlafly, president of Eagle Forum, a national conservative organization. ``And even if that were true, the answer is not electing feminists.''

The hope behind the new drive is that feminist-group coalitions will form at each stop on the tour and that cadres of full- and part-time volunteers will stay behind to work out the operational details.

``If any one can pull it off, Eleanor Smeal can,'' says Janet Flammang, an expert on women in politics and grass-roots movements from Santa Clara University. ``Women need formal backup and machinery to get them going and sustain them. Men have always had the support of their business, professional, and civic groups.''

``There is no question that Smeal is hitting upon a very significant need in this recruitment push,'' says Ruth Mandel, director of the Center for The American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University. She points out that, while the percentage of elected offices held by women has climbed to over 15 percent from just 4 percent in 1971, the progress has been very slow.

``The question will be whether enough money will come in to sustain the organization,'' Ms. Mandel adds. ``And will there be sufficient follow-through from election season to election season.''

Auditoriums in each city will be decorated to resemble a political convention, and delegates will sit near standards bearing the names of their group or local area.

``All participants will be asked to pledge neither to work for nor support candidates who ignore feminist issues,'' Smeal says, ``but rather to search for feminist alternatives.''

``Nearly everyone in the movement would agree that this is a very intelligent move,'' says Carole Joffe, a sociologist at the School of Social Work at Bryn Mawr College. ``Instead of building a campaign around a single issue such as the Equal Rights Amendment where you either win or lose, you build a campaign around women candidates where you don't have to win everything to be successful. Thirty percent success would still be good.''

But some observers question this approach. ``The feminist agenda as a political viewpoint has not taken the country by storm in the past few years,'' says John Chubb, a senior fellow in governmental studies at the Brookings Institution. ``Drawing attention to one's feminism is not likely to be a winning strategy. ... They might be better served in finding candidates sympathetic to their concerns without the label which the public is resisting right now.''

``When anyone is perceived as running on behalf of some special interest, it doesn't help,'' says Mervin Field, director of the California Poll and president of the Field Institute, a public-opinion research firm. ``Some of the most successful women candidates - [US Sen.] Barb Mikulski and [San Francisco Mayor] Dianne Feinstein among them - were successful because they showed themselves as competent politicians, not feminists.''

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