SAN FRANCISCO — The delegates were beside themselves:
* The same day the National Organization for Women opened its 24th annual conference here on Friday, President Bush vetoed a bill that would have guaranteed workers in larger businesses unpaid time off to care for seriously ill family members or newborn infants.
* Three days before the NOW meeting began, the Louisiana State Senate passed the most restrictive abortion measure in the country (prohibiting all abortions unless a woman's life is endangered), a bill that also was passed by that state's House. Though Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer has threatened to veto the measure unless it includes exceptions for cases of incest or rape, legislators are said to be gathering to override a veto.
* Almost a year ago exactly, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services decision, allowed states to establish their own abortion rules, a devastating blow for abortion-rights activists. NOW President Mollie Yard estimates that 350 anti-abortion bills have been filed in state legislatures since last July.
In response, NOW may become more aggressive than ever. The group said it has picked up 70,000 new members since the Webster decision (for a total of about 260,000) and it intends to intensify its battles to keep abortion legal and accessible.
Yard, in San Francisco, emphasized that the organization increasingly will back candidates of either party who favor abortion rights. And if there aren't enough politicians to NOW's liking, the group may start a third national political party to further a host of feminist causes.
The notion of an entirely new political party was first proposed at last year's convention, where it reportedly met with considerable enthusiasm from the membership.
The response from outside NOW's ranks, however, was disparaging.
"Stupid, impractical, divisive--you name it, we were called it," Yard said at a standing-room only session discussing NOW's just-launched "Commission for Responsive Democracy."
After the November elections, the 40-member, multipartisan commission is expected to conduct hearings in six cities nationwide to determine the feasibility of a third party.
Among those who have signed on as commission members are:
* Rose Bird, former California chief justice;
* Former Rep. John Anderson, a onetime presidential candidate;
* ToneyAnaya, former New Mexico governor;
* Ramsey Clark, former U.S. attorney general;
* Dolores Huerta, vice president of the United Farm Workers.
"We have been very trashed on this subject," former NOW president Eleanor Smeal told the convention. Currently a member of the commission and the president of Feminist Majority (an Arlington, Va.-based national group dedicated to electing feminists), Smeal emphasized that "all the issues are women's issues."
Issues the commission will explore, as expressed in NOW's "expanded Bill of Rights for the 21st Century," include:
* Rights to freedom from discrimination based on sex, race, age, disability or sexual orientation;
* Reproductive freedom;
* Freedom from violence;
* The right to food, housing, health care and education;
* The right to a safe and clean environ
The commission is expected to make its final report to the national NOW conference next summer.
Though the notion of a third party appeared to have overwhelming support of this year's 2,000 conference attendees, Yard said in an interview, "We don't know what's going to come of it. We're going to look at everything. There are lots of different ways it could work out.
"You might set up a system to endorse candidates, and where we didn't find somebody we liked, we'd put our own person up" for office, she said.
Pointing out that third parties can significantly affect established political parties even if they don't win many elections, NOW executive vice president Patricia Ireland cited George Wallace's American Independent Party's success at moving at both Democrats and Republicans to the right in the 1960s. And she pointed to a "more encouraging example": the Green Party of West Germany, widely known for its environmental concerns and influence.
In addition, the NOW conference heard Petra Kelly, the West German activist who helped found the Green Party in 1979 and who was elected to the Bundestag (German parliament) in 1983.
Other speakers included four women gubernatorial candidates: California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, Massachusetts Democrat Evelyn Murphy, Oregon Democrat Barbara Roberts, and Pennsylvania Republican Barbara Hafer.
There also were two U.S. Senate candidates: Colorado Democrat Josie Heath, and North Carolina Democrat Harvey Gantt, who is attempting to unseat Republican Sen. Jesse Helms.
Throughout the conference, held at the San Francisco Hilton Hotel, anti-abortion activists marched outside the hotel, bearing signs such as: "Abortion Liberates Men Not Women," "Stop Abortion NOW," and "Feminists for Life."