Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

Was colonial America the best or worst of societies for slaves and women as objects of property?

No one knows for sure - or cares, say Federal Judge A. Leon Higginbotham and feminist Gloria Steinem. But it is appropriate, continues the judge, to "point out our malignant pathology."

The two - public official and social activist - advocated the causes of blacks and women Wednesday night at the Smithsonian Institution Building, the "old red castle," in an evening dialogue attended by about 65 persons largely from government and the academic world.

The occasion was a panel discussion and dinner sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The evening was mostly quiet. The volatile encounters between a feminist activist and a properly mannered audience did not materialize.

Instead, what sparks flew came in the exchanges between Higginbotham, a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Marcus Cunliffe, an American studies professor at Sussex University and a Wilson Fellow.

In a clipped British accent, Cunliffe asked if stories about the death rate of Africans on slave ships might be exaggerated.

"Was it in the ship captains' interests to have deaths? he asked. "I have some skepticism."

Replied Higginbotham: "The question of whether slavery was harsh or gentle is not important. The point is that blacks didn't volunteer to come to this country.

The 18th century, a time of expanding freedom for many people, he said, raised a profound question: How could anyone "as wise as (Thomas) Jefferson be party to such cruelty?"

His question went unanswered.

Steinem, a Wilson fellow, said there were growing restrictions on women after the American Revolution. Women, she said, were primarily a means of production, whether for children or labor.

Many of the restrictions women suffered, she said, were sexual. "If one wishes to keep the race pure, one restricts the freedom of women," she declared. This, she said, led to laws against miscegenation.

"The puritanical impulse to populate this country was not prowomen," she said. "The overall umbrella shows us that woman can be property."