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Feminist Dichotomy: Moles and Militants

July 28, 1985|Kay Mills | Kay Mills is a Times editorial writer

The women's movement needs people marching outside in the streets, feminist Gloria Steinem said not long ago, so that the women working on the "inside in the suits" will look reasonable. Steinem summarized the dichotomy of today's women's movement: The "moles" who work within the corporations, political parties, churches and schools to achieve change, and the militants, who march down streets and pound on doors demanding equality.

Conventions, and especially elections, held within the last month by two major feminist organizations--the National Women's Political Caucus in Atlanta and the National Organization for Women in New Orleans--showed that the movement soon will be doing both again.

The caucus focuses on the political process--training women candidates, raising money and helping elect them. Its meeting drew people successful within that process: former vice presidential candidate Geraldine A. Ferraro, New York City Council President Carol Bellamy, Missouri Lt. Gov. Harriett Woods, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joy Picus, to name a few. Ten years ago, Betsey Wright was conducting a workshop at a Boston caucus convention; this year she attended as chief of staff for the governor of Arkansas.

In a close but almost cordial election, the caucus selected Irene Natividad, a New Yorker with a ready sense of humor, as the first Asian-American to be its president. Surprisingly upbeat after last year's campaign, the caucus looks at the 1984 election as a victory. "'I don't care what they say, we won," Ferraro told a cheering audience, adding that any limitations against women running for high office have now been lifted. Caucus analysts pointed to increases in the numbers of women in state legislatures and the continuation of a gender gap that they said may have been obscured but was not obliterated by Reagan's landslide.

The women's movement has always been weakest in the South, so it was significant that both organizations met there. Meeting there will not be enough. Feminists must do more organizing, Wright said, especially in rural areas where women already play key roles.

But while both organizations met in the South, the similarity stops there. NOW's elections have always been passionate and fraught with foul-ups. Its constant chants of "Ellie, Ellie"--for Eleanor Smeal--and "Judy, Judy"--for Judy Goldsmith--its T-shirts and posters, its election-delaying snafu over a sample ballot, proved nothing changes but time.

NOW President Goldsmith had won high marks from the political pros for her help in putting the organization behind demands for a woman on the Democratic ticket last year and for her willingness not to say, "Here's what we're going to do," but rather, "What can we all do?" Significantly, the few of those professionals who attended were quietly but firmly in the Goldsmith camp.

Smeal, who beat Goldsmith by a comfortable margin, did not share their view. People think the Reagan Administration is successfully putting down women, Smeal said, in part because women have not been visible enough. Smeal, returning to the office she held from 1977 to 1982, wants to have 200,000 women marching next March to defend the right to abortion. She pledges to organize on college campuses--considered a vital need because many young women think the fight is over. She wants every member of Congress to know that it will cost them votes if they vote against reaffirming broad federal enforcement powers to cut off funds to institutions that discriminate.

Smeal, 45, also deftly turned around the question of the need for NOW to develop a new generation of leadership rather than go back to an earlier one. "If I were a man, I would be considered one of the younger generation," like Gary Hart, she said.

The confrontational style that Smeal and NOW are adopting is a high-risk strategy. Suppose you have a march and not enough people come? But suppose you don't and nobody knows how you feel?

These two groups' meetings come at a pivotal moment. The women's movement is being tested by history. As former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chairman Eleanor Holmes Norton said, it has come far fast. Will it fade just as quickly, as the first feminist movement did upon gaining the vote for women? Or has it already built momentum so strong that, as its leaders say, there can be no going back?

Certainly there are forces pushing back. The Reagan Administration wants to overturn the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion and supports those who want to restrict federal anti-discrimination enforcement. The Catholic Church, which continues to resist the ordination of women, seeks retractions from 24 American nuns who signed a newspaper ad indicating that Catholics do not hold a monolithic policy on abortion.

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