Outside the Shoreham Hotel's Paladium room stood clusters of young couples, posturing in their prom attire, attempting to overcome the embarrassment of having arrived too early.
As the couples stalled their entrance a bit longer, a wave of professional women swept around the corner and drew to a halt. The women gaped at the promgoers, who, for at least this one night, appeared to face no greater crisis than-minute pimple. To the women, at the midpoint of a four-day conference titled Women in Crisis, the sight of such apparently problem-free teens seemed curious indeed. After a brief inspection the women continued down the corridor their thoughts back to more pressing topics, such as rape, child abuse, battered women, alcoholism and inadequate funding for their programs.
Veterans of countless workshops and conferences, more than 1,000 social planners attending the conference brought their experience as teachers, physicians, psychologists, sociologists and social service bureaucrats. And after discussing, arguing and assessing for four days they left, their legal pads filled with the names and phone numbers of women operating similar programs.
As the conference delegates walked through the halls, occasional disagreements arose over treatment plans or the worth of assertiveness training. But there was underlying agreement that female alcoholics and addicts need different treatment than their male counterparts.
"The idea is that a woman with a drug problem doesn't just have a drug problem. She has a court problem, a parenting problem and a job problem. But unfortunately the drug problem is all we're funded for and no one can get at the causes," explained conference administrator Jane Velez of the Project Return Foundation Inc., a New York City-based drug referral agency that, along with grants from the state of New York, sponsored the conference.
Velez said that by bringing together professionals working in drugs, alcohol and mental health treatment as well as the justice system, the conference will encourage them to "share information and get them to look at the woman as a complete woman."
"Alcoholism is a Woman's Issue" read the button pinned to Berna Seward, who 10 years ago reached a crisis point at which she says she was either going to die or end her six-year dependency on drugs and alcohol.
"I'm a recovered alcoholic and I can say that now," says Seward, 51, who is now the executive director of an alcohol information referral center in Rutland, Vt.
Married 30 years and the mother of seven children, Seward says she was once a wino who also wangled amphetamines and Nebutal from four different doctors simultaneously.
"I was very clever," she says.
Now she uses her lobbying skills to eke money from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism for her referral center. Her pet project is aimed specifically at women alcoholics, who she says need an outpatient facility because they are often mothers who cannot or will not leave their homes and children for the more prevalent in-residence alcohol treatment centers.
Twice her proposal has been ejected and twice she has rewritten it. Over the weekend she was busy attending workshops designed to teach her the delicate art of writing a grant proposal.
Much of the talk at the conference was about the displaced homemaker who often becomes a candidate for a crisis when the marriage she has invested most of her adult life in ends in divorce or her husband's death.
"Freud said the meaning of life is to love and to work. The displaced homemaker gets counted out of each," explained Boston University sociology professor Ruth Harriet Jacobs, who conducted a workshop on aging.
"They just did what society told them to do and now they have no options," said Jacobs, 55, who left a successful career as a journalist in the 1940s to spend 20 years raising her three children before returning to college for a bachelor's degree. Eventually she got her Ph.D.
She blames much of the problems of the displaced homemaker on the "Noah's Ark syndrome," which she say implies that there is something wrong with an older woman if she is single.
And when sexism, age discrimination and a lack of career skills combine, Jacobs says, the displaced homemaker is in "triple jeopardy" and easily could fall into mental illness, alcoholism or drug abuse.
But for 16-year-old Sabra Bull, the crisis of aging seemed a long way off.
Speaking to a panel on changing roles of the female adolescent, Bull explained, "All my friends go out with older boys, and they consider the boys our age immature, like monkeys. We go to bars and we're accepted as adults and that's important to us. But you know, you think you're an adult, you know, and you're really not. We have to grow up faster and it's hard."
Bull, who will be a high school junior in the fall, said that she once wanted to get married and live "an easy life." But of late, and particularly since her parents were divorced, Bull has decided on a career as a photographer. "I want to have the career option," she said. "I'm not interested in things at school like the prom. I'm interested in academics. I want a career so I never have to be dependent on anyone."