The Monday, July 11, Style section incorrectly identified Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro (D-N.Y.) in a photo caption.
"I'm a feminist!" Walter Mondale announced, his words filling a cavernous banquet hall of 2,000 women who could make the difference in electing him president. "I want your help--and I need it!"
The women applauded him more than the four other Democratic presidential candidates there, but they scrutinized him, too. Sounds great, they said afterward, but did he mean it? In one sense, it didn't matter. When presidential candidates begin flattering and pleading, that means you've got power.
And the women meeting here for the sixth convention of the National Women's Political Caucus are reveling in it. For four days in the hotels and meeting rooms along the banks of the San Antonio River, there has been an exuberance rarely felt when political women get together. Kathy Wilson, the Republican who is national chair of the bipartisan caucus and who called for Ronald Reagan not to run again, had tears running down her face at a lunch celebrating the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. And during the opening ceremonies in an open-air theater on a bend in the river, a garbage boat came drifting by--driven by a woman. Everyone cheered.
It is the "gender gap," which shows women significantly less supportive of Reagan than men are, that has finally made women the force they have been fighting to be. Reagan was the chief villain this weekend, but instead of complaints, there were threats--and instead of sighs about what's still ahead, there were celebrations of things now behind.
As Ann Lewis, the political director of the Democratic National Commitee, put it: "Ten years ago, I remember sitting in Washington trying to figure out how to arrange a meeting with George McGovern. Now we've got five of the six Democratic presidential candidates here."
Only Reubin Askew didn't show. But Gary Hart put on an open-necked Mexican shirt and shook hands at a fiesta, Mondale auctioned off a framed Garry Trudeau cartoon of Joanie Caucus, Alan Cranston managed some cold chicken at a table with six women, John Glenn said he'd been in the Marines for 23 years and so sympathized with women about "the horrors" of war, and Fritz Hollings brought his wife, Peatsy. She came with a story that seemed fitting:
One very early morning on the campaign trail in California, the phone rang in the Hollings hotel suite. Peatsy answered, groggily. "Is Senator Hollings there?" inquired the caller. Peatsy pried her eyes open, looked over at her husband and then said, loud enough for the caller to hear, "Honey, is your name Hollings?" A Warhorse Charges On
Gloria Steinem called it "magic" and Sissy Farenthold, the first chair of the caucus, called it "a high," but whatever it was, it was there--running through the workshops, the panel that questioned the presidential candidates, the speechifying, the eating and drinking. It came together best at a packed seminar run by Steinem, one of the warhorses of the movement who had touched the lives of the 400 women who crowded in to hear her speak. "We're isolated from each other in our families, in our offices, in our factories," she said. "We are very often the servants in our own homes. Consequently, there is a real tactical necessity to come together as women first, to make a psychic turf. Women are the only discriminated-against group that doesn't have a country, that doesn't have a neighborhood, that doesn't have a bar."
Steinem, who still has her trademark long hair and aviator glasses, also spoke of the younger women in colleges now who refuse to call themselves feminists. "The question to me is--why are they even saying they are?" she said in remarks after the seminar. "When you're on campus, you're more equal than you will ever be. They'll gladly accept your tuition money. But there are four radicalizing experiences in a woman's life: when she enters the labor force, when she gets married and realizes it's not the partnership she thought, when she bears children, and when she ages. When you are very young, you have not experienced any of those. Women grow more radical as they get older."
Steinem also said:
* "The way we talk to each other as men and women is a function of powerlessness. We just now have enough studies to know that it's not true that women talk more than men. Men talk more than women in both single-sex and mixed-sex groups. But women are perceived as talking more because they are measured against an expectation of female silence."
* "It goes for housework, too. Men honestly say, 'I help around the house a lot.' And they really mean it. But they're measuring it against an expectation of doing nothing."
* "The wives of the powerful are more likely to be restricted and kept powerless. Why is it that upper-class women are so often the most passive, the least confident, the least able to deal in the world? Many of the great fortunes of this country are passed down from father to son, but if General Motors is going to pass through your womb, then you can be damn well sure they're not going to let you grab it on the way through."
* "We once tried to figure out the myth about women sleeping their way to wealth and power. We all felt that if we could have done that, there would have been more of us in power."
When it was over, she got a standing ovation. Steinem flipped her long hair over her shoulder, smiled, then said: "And you have to promise me--as always--that you'll do one outrageous thing every day when you get home." 'A Woman's Race'
The convention was full of the usual convention business: an in-house fight over a dues increase (there was one), reports, elections of vice chairs and squabbles over who would be a panelist asking questions in the presidential candidate forum. (Some of the younger women politicians were resentful that the caucus went with old faithfuls like Bella Abzug rather than including new blood.)
What was more interesting to see was the kind of temporary culture created by 2,000 women and very few men. At a Saturday morning three-mile "fun run" past the Alamo and through the muggy streets of San Antonio, there was a small moment at the starting line that said a lot about the weekend. There were about 100 women runners and a handful of men, and as usual, the men crowded right up on the edge of starting line, and as usual, the women hung back. "Wait a minute," said one women moments before the gun went off. "This is a woman's race." She walked back into the pack, grabbed as many women as she could by the arm, and pushed them up front. The men moved over.
In a workshop on feminism and the arms race, Frances Farley, a leader of a Utah grass-roots campaign that stopped the MX missile "racetrack," offered the kind of advice that would be hard to imagine her saying to men. "I remember once I was speaking to a group about the MX," she said, "and I began, 'I may not be an expert, but . . .' Afterward, a male friend of mine said to me, 'Frances, don't you ever say that again.' " So Who Won?
Although Steinem thought Mondale and Cranston showed the "most sensitivity" during the panel questioning, no candidate emerged as the clear favorite of the women. But they all certainly tried.
Mondale, who wasn't going to come but interrupted his Minnesota vacation at the last minute when he heard the others were ("Scheduling problems"), turned up Saturday at the fiesta in his shirt sleeves.
Hart was doing his own politicking in a meeting room in the Hyatt Regency, one of the numerous convention hotels that opened up onto the river walkway of restaurants and tourist traps. In a session with Austin women, Hart stood up at the head of a table and earnestly appealed to the new set of power brokers. Politicians had done it before, but this time it was distinct enough to qualify as a real role reversal.
"I need your help," Hart said as the women sized him up. "And I am convinced that with your help I will be the nominee, and the next president of the United States."
"What is your strategy?" one woman wanted to know. "What are you doing?" He laughed, and she laughed "Or do you know?"
"Who's lining up Texas delegate votes for you?" another asked.
"If you want the job," Hart told her, laughing, "you've got it."
The presidential forum yesterday was the best--and worst--place to size a candidate up. Best in that the panel grilled the candidates indivdually, and worst in that they all came out the same way: Pro-choice, pro-ERA, against excessive military spending, for equal pay, for equal work, against the feminization of poverty.
So it was a battle of nuances and emotions. Of the five, Mondale and Cranston came out the strongest for an administration that would include women in top jobs--both promised to appoint more than any other president in history while Glenn said it was too early to tell.
If there was a loser, it was Hart. He went over the time allowed and when reminded by panel moderator Harriett Woods, a candidate for Missouri lieutenant governor, he said curtly, "I'll be done in a minute." Panelist Maxine Waters, an assemblywoman from California, got mad.
"You ignored our time limit," she said, "I wonder if this is an indication of your attitude toward women." Looking Ahead
Women at the convention kept on calling the weekend "a turning point," and while no one was saying it would go down in history like the first women's rights convention 135 years ago in Seneca Falls, N.Y., some might come to see San Antonio 1983 as more than a small chapter.
Kathy Wilson, the national chair, certainly wants it that way. Because the networks and newspapers pressured her to move up her speech calling for Reagan not to run again--so they could meet their deadlines--she agreed, and bumped right up to the time of Steinem's seminar. Since hundreds went to that, Wilson found herself shouting and gesturing to network cameras in a half-empty hall.
But that didn't bother her. "We're not just talking to ourselves," she said. "We're talking to the world."