ATLANTA — The first conference on "Women and the Constitution" had ended with some go-get-'em oratory from Bella Abzug. Hours later, Rosalynn Carter, reflecting on the meaning of it all, said: "The women's movement has been kind of biding its time and waiting. All of a sudden it's come alive."
It was a personal triumph for Carter, principal convener of this two-day symposium--together with Lady Bird Johnson, who participated, and Betty Ford and Pat Nixon, who gave their endorsements. More importantly, it was, by consensus, something of a milestone for the women's movement.
Bringing together the mainstream of American women--1,500 delegates from all 50 states and 10 foreign countries--and radical feminists had served, as one woman put it, to satisfy a "hunger to get back together."
Setting the Record Straight
Carter had not wanted this meeting to be a protest against men but, rather, a gathering of scholars and activists of all stripes, here to set the record straight on women's role in U.S. history and to address contemporary women's issues.
During a closing dinner party at the plantation home of entrepreneur Betty Talmadge, Carter smiled and said how happy she was "not to fizzle with my friends in Plains," who'd been a little dubious about this.
Southern women, after all, have never been in the forefront of the women's movement. But Southern women were well represented among delegates to the symposium, which was sponsored by the Carter Center of Emory University, Georgia State University and the Jimmy Carter Library.
The women's movement too has long acknowledged its inability to attract black women in numbers, to make its cause their principal cause. Black women were prominent among speakers and presenters here, and there were black women, as well as some men, among delegates.
Speakers, including Coretta Scott King, reminded participants that, in the struggle for equality, women and minorities are inextricably linked, that, like blacks in the 1960s, women of the 1980s and 1990s "have an historic mission . . . not only to improve their own circumstances, but to advance the values of caring and compassion in American society and throughout the world."
And Mary King, one of the white women who fought to desegregate the South in the 1960s, reminded delegates that "Genuine civil rights concerns are at the core of the women's movement. . . ."
Today's women's movement, she said "must raise new voices, from farms, from factories, from textile mills, from canning plants, from amongst the homeless, 40% of whom are women. . . . This is not an issue of equal pay for all the corporate lawyers in the board room."
Taking political power--that was the underlying theme here. Today is the 168th anniversary of the birth of suffragist Susan B. Anthony, an appropriate occasion, several speakers noted, to make a renewed commitment.
Geraldine Ferraro, who was Walter Mondale's running mate in 1984, put it this way: "If you don't run, you can't win." And win or lose, she said, there is a ripple effect--"every time a woman runs, women win" because women's priorities become part of the process.
She observed that only 23 women serve in the House, with 412 men, and there are only two women senators. But Ferraro noted that Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis has a woman as manager of his presidential campaign and that women have important jobs in other campaigns. "The next President," she said, "will have been elected with a campaign team that includes women in the inner circle."
Victory for Women
Although Mondale-Ferraro lost in 1984, Ferraro said on reflection it was a victory for women: "We took down once and for all the sign on the White House door that said 'Men only.' "
In her fiery closing address, Abzug, former New York congresswoman and longtime peace and women's rights activist, tossed out the proposition that seats be designated for "women only" as vacancies occur in the House until women reach parity, and that half of the U.S. Senate seats be so designated.
Abzug may have provided some uncomfortable moments for Lady Bird Johnson, seated on-stage, as she spoke of the lasting sociological impact of the anti-Vietnam War movement. Disaffection with U.S. involvement in that war was largely responsible for Lyndon B. Johnson's decision not to seek a second full term.
But that juxtaposition also illustrated the uniqueness of the gathering--a melding of women of different generations and life experiences and philosophies. Johnson, who is 75 this year, said without apology during a round table discussion that, while she cherishes the White House years, "It was Lyndon's life. It was not really mine," a sharp contrast to the activist women who today hope to be First Lady.
'I'm Glad I Came'
Still, she was a willing and involved participant here, speaking frequently of her desire that her six granddaughters have every opportunity open to her grandson. At conference's end, she said, "I learned a lot. I'm glad I came."