The National Women's Conference to Prevent Nuclear War adopted a three-point plan of action yesterday while handing a strong rebuke to the men who run the world's war machines.
And so the battle of the sexes went nuclear.
The nearly 300 participants, ranging from Coretta Scott King to Billie Jean King, resolved to organize a get-out-the-vote drive for the Nov. 6 election; to make an effort on Aug. 6, 1985, the 40th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, to stop all nuclear explosions for testing; and to hold an international women's disarmament conference in November 1975.
This first-ever national conference meant to spur women around the country to antiwar activism billed itself as nonpartisan. But there were rampant denunciations of the Reagan administration along with the scholarly disquisitions on space weaponry and pop-psych analyses.
Speaker after speaker in the Cannon House Office Building launched fissionable rhetoric at the male of the species.
War, said former New York representative Bella Abzug from under her wide-brimmed hat, "is the male approach to solving international disputes."
Some male officeholders, said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D.-Colo.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, are a lot like skirmishing "cowboys."
"Men," said Dr. Helen Caldicott, a Boston pediatrician who heads Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament, "tend not to be in touch with their feelings."
At a news conference, Caldicott, an Australian citizen, elaborated. "There is a strong psychosexual element that we have to address if we're ever to end the arms race," Caldicott said. "All you have to do is look at the language of nuclear war. 'Missile erector.' 'Terminal thrust.' 'Deep penetration.' 'Hard targets and soft targets.' What's that all about? That's not women's language."
She added, "Men don't admit it when they make a mistake. My husband just learned to ask directions . . . Women are in touch with their feelings. Women's bodies are built for having babies, for nurturing and for giving life."
Retired rear admiral Gene R. La Rocque, director of the military watchdog Center for Defense Information, which sponsored the conference, said he generally agrees with Caldicott. "I think women are definitely better equipped to stop nuclear war," said La Rocque, who stayed away from yesterday's session because "it's a women's thing . . . We men have become entranced with mechanical devices. These weapons we get to play with today are extensions of boyhood toys."
Harvard sophomore Ariela Gross -- who made news last year when, as a Presidential Scholar, she handed Reagan a nuclear freeze petition -- took issue with Caldicott. "I don't think women are biologically more peaceful," she said. "All I have to do is hear Jeane Kirkpatrick talk for 30 seconds to know that's not true."
Earlier, in the rococo splendor of the Cannon Caucus Room, Caldicott had brought the participants to their feet with a speech exhorting them to help elect 200 women to Congress by 1986. Flourishing a scarf of angry magenta, which matched her rhetorical passion, she observed:
*"This Congress is filled with corporate prostitutes."
*"Reagan is the most dangerous president this country's ever had . . . He is so profoundly ignorant."
*"Women are so darn smart, so much more than the men -- particularly in this building."
*"If we don't get off our tails and do something, we're all going to be dead soon."
The conference -- titled "It's Up to the Women," a line from one of Eleanor Roosevelt's antiwar addresses in 1933 -- continued the long tradition of women against war, dating back (theatrically at least) to 411 B.C. That was the year Aristophanes wrote his comedy "Lysistrata," chronicling how the women of Athens and Sparta managed to stop the Peloponnesian War by waging a general strike against their soldier husbands.
More recently -- and less apocryphally -- two women from opposing factions in Northern Ireland, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, formed the Community of Peace People to promote harmony in their country. They shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976.
Yesterday's session, chaired by Joanne Woodward, a member of the defense center's board of advisers, featured panel discussions with former National Organization for Women president Eleanor Smeal and former Republican National Committee cochair Mary Dent Crisp, and tackled such topics as "Life in the Nuclear Age" and "American Politics and Preventing Nuclear War."
Coretta Scott King conducted a panel and talked about the societal implications of nuclear war. "Nuclear war is not an equal-opportunity destroyer," she said, noting that the nation's minorities are concentrated in large target cities.
Billie Jean King sat quietly in the back of the room. "I'm here to listen and learn," said the tennis star. "Expanding my horizons, you know."
West German peace activist Eva Quistord appealed to "our dear American sisters to help us get the nuclear weapons out of West Europe." Alice Tepper Marlin, director of the Council on Economic Priorities, tossed "stool caps" into the audience. She said the plastic chair-leg tips, for which she paid 25 cents at a hardware store, cost the Pentagon $1,100.
Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio) said, "Joanne Woodward is an actress of great quality -- unlike Ronald Reagan."
During her stemwinder, Bella Abzug said, "Women have always been taught to talk softly -- some of us, anyway -- and carry a lipstick. Well, we're trading the lipstick in. We're trading it in for our kind of big stick . . . We are on the eve of an electoral rebellion."
Out in the audience, both Caldicott and actress Sally Field stood up and whooped.
Columbia University professor Ethel Klein, author of "Gender Politics," read an incendiary quotation, circa 1925, from a certain Rear Admiral Fiske: "It is to the interest of women that they permit men to obtain the necessary armament. Only in this way can they be assured of the comfort and protection they need. In spite of themselves, we must protect the ladies" -- to which several in the audience, shattering the meeting's businesslike decorum, vehemently shouted, "B-------!"
Woodward opened the session by noting, "The United States will build five nuclear weapons today, and we presume the Russians will do the same. Let's hope we make it through this afternoon."
An hour or so later, the session was interrupted by the wail of a siren.
"This must be it," said Eleanor Smeal. It turned out, however, that it wasn't "It" -- just the regular monthly testing of Washington's civil defense system.
"Marvelous," Woodward said to that bit of serendipity.