ATLANTA -- She was 17 and blond, an El Paso high school student reluctant to fly in with her mother to mingle with 1,500 movement veterans and fledgling feminists. Now, she was suddenly gaga.
"She fought me," said Carolyn Parker, a Texas businesswoman with a string of beauty schools and women's issues on her mind. "She didn't want to be here, but now she's saying, 'Wow, oh, wow!' "
Indeed, there was Amy Parker, roping yet another superstar autograph like a pro, hovering at the edge of a gaggle of women hanging on the words of Coretta Scott King, finding an opening, then thrusting her program at the widow of the slain civil rights leader. Bingo, another prize.
"Now, we've got Coretta King, Lady Bird, Erma Bombeck, Rosalynn Carter, Eleanor Smeal," she beamed, breathless over the women's political superstars she'd glimpsed at a two-day symposium here on how women have shaped America's past and the unrequited dreams they have for its future.
For many bruised movement veterans, ERA buttons pinned to lapels, it was revival time. For others, like Amy, it was an education. That's why her mother brought her. "I wanted her to see how women have had to fight to get where they are and how far they've come," said Carolyn Parker.
Courtesy of Emory University's Carter Center, there were 157 speakers, including former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, former Texas representative Barbara Jordan and Rosa Parks, who grandmothered the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her seat to a white rider on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955. Women from all 50 states and 10 foreign countries packed seminars on topics ranging from women and pornography to the Equal Rights Amendment.
"From this conference, we can create a legacy for a generation to come," said Rosalynn Carter, official host, along with another former first lady, Lady Bird Johnson.
It was a conference inspired by frustration, said Carter after she saw that few women were cranked into the mix at last September's bicentennial celebration of the Constitution. Concerned, she rallied former first ladies Johnson, Betty Ford and Pat Nixon to celebrate women's contributions to the country's democratic roots. (Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Nixon could not attend the conference.)
Rather than inspiring women to protest their exclusion from drafting the original document, she said she saw it as a way to educate, to pay tribute to past heroes and inspire new ones to examine the system and plan for an important women's role in the future.
"The women's movement has shifted to a new phase," reflected women's activist Jacqueline Frost, a marketing vice president for a Charlotte, N.C., chemical firm with $10 million in sales who appeared fired up by what she heard. Only she didn't intend to protest the way she once had.
"Marching in the streets has been replaced by walking through the corridors of power, sitting on school boards, rewriting sexist textbooks, buying, owning and managing businesses."
Seminar rhetoric and reflection fueled new enthusiasm, expectations, even a few outbursts. Dorothy Haith, Howard University's library director, popped to her feet to chide women for failing to turn out en masse for Ferraro in 1984. "She was the best chance you had to do something for women and now you have no right to come here and complain," she snapped at no one in particular.
But earlier today, the former candidate herself cited a slow but steady influx of women into politics, urging those who had suffered defeat, or might in the future, to try again, to emulate the courage of, yes, a male hero in the film "Chariots of Fire," who felt sorry for himself after losing a race. "He said, 'If I can't win, I won't run.' To which the woman in his life responded, 'If you don't run, you can't win.'
" 'But,' he whined, 'I've worked so hard, what will I aim for?'
"Again, she had the answer: 'Beat him next time.' "
The conference paid tribute to women who had beat the odds against making an impact, such as Mercy Otis Warren, who helped pen the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, and former first lady Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams, who urged her husband, President John Adams, to "remember the ladies."
Several political veterans came looking for more war talk than they got. "I came in the hope they'd say something radical," said Shirley Franklin, chief administrative officer to Mayor Andrew Young. "But the most radical thing I've heard is the call for a new constitutional convention. It could happen, but it will take a lot of grass roots movement."
Others were fond just to reminisce. "It's like going back to the VFW," said Erma Bombeck. "We're telling war stories, flashing our medals. I'll be honest with you, I don't have a silver star. I never got the congressional medal of NutraSweet for debating Phyllis Schlafly."
Coretta King brought the crowd to its feet after lunch, then came Bella Abzug in her trademark floppy hat, red this time, to match her suit and her spirit. She said she'd begun wearing the hat after her late husband said that men wouldn't take her seriously as a lawyer if she didn't wear a hat and gloves. "But I took the gloves off a long time ago," she quipped.
Before he died, she told a rapt crowd, they had toured the White House. "He wanted to see the place where he would live after he was 'first man,' " she said. "He didn't live to see that day, but others will."
Then it was on to a bus for the 30-mile ride to Lovejoy, Ga., and an intimate farewell supper for 70 speakers, organizers and guests at the farm of Betty Talmadge, the former senator's wife, whose house was said to be a model for Margaret Mitchell's Twelve Oaks. She served a buffet of cheese grits, congealed salad, asparagus and fried chicken -- liberated of all bones -- and Abzug was ribbed for piling her plate high with seconds.
"It's the new, new, new South Southern fried chicken," observed Atlanta society columnist Martha Woodham. "You can eat it without getting your fingers messy."
"My heart is filled with pride when I look around the room," said Talmadge. "I couldn't help but think if Scarlett and Melanie were here, they'd be proud too."
Several guests breathed easy that no jackbooted, man-the-barricades feminists had invaded the conference (or the dinner). Indeed, there were neither blue jeans nor mink coats, just down-to-earth women who had once sashayed to the brink of power, made things happen in their time, and lived to inspire others and share pecan pie (sprouting a tiny American flag) for dessert. "I don't think any of us wanted the day to end," said Rosalynn Carter.