The other night at a birthday party for a friend, the conversation got around to Alan Alda--star of stage, screen and the Equal Rights Amendment. One of the women sneered at Alda, saying that he was a phony. He could not be the feminist he said he was, she said, and she had proof of this: He is a man.

This is the sort of thing you hear more and more these days. It ranges from a milder version of what that woman said about Alda to simple and pure rage at men for being, of all things, men.

They are thought to be flawed, either by birth or by upbringing, incapable of seeing women as their equals and unable to react to them simply as people. There is always something else on the agenda: sex.

We can all take the long view, of course, and say that this wariness and possibly hostility towards men is merely the stage all movements pass through. Some elements of the black civil rights movement, for instance, became the black power movement, which excluded whites on the grounds that, if I have it right, they were innately racist. Whites could not help themselves. Being white and having been raised in a racist society, they were, almost by definition, racist.

The logic of the black power movement was compelling, and few would deny it had something of a case. The trouble was, though, that it deprived blacks of allies in the civil rights movement and wound up doing, for different reasons, what Jim Crow had set out to do in the first place: separate the races.

What was perhaps most disheartening was that it told well-intentioned (but possibly flawed) whites that they were simply not wanted. For a time this made the civil rights struggle a black-only fight. The trouble is that when it comes to the issue of equality all races have a stake.

This applies to the women's movement as well. By saying that men cannot be feminist, women are not only questioning the sincerity of those who say they are, but, in a sense, mocking them as well.

There is a special sort of sneer reserved for those who try, as if they are somehow worse than those who make no effort at all. The sneer was present in the term "white liberal" as it is now when a woman calls a man a feminist--as if white racists and male chauvinist pigs, no matter what else they are, are at least honest.

In essence, the message is, "don't try." This is what some whites thought black power was saying to them and they were either sad or more than happy to comply--it depended. With the women's movement, the same thing could happen and the results could be disastrous. After all, it is not possible to tell half the population to kiss off and then attempt reform in any meaningful way.

But there is something else at stake here and it goes to the heart of what the women's movement is really all about--overcoming the notion that in ways that really count women and men were born different. I am not referring here to obvious sexual differences but rather to the persistent belief that when it comes to intellect, strength, purposefulness, drive, energy, practical thinking, and having control over one's emotions, a woman is by birth not the equal of a man.

Women who say that men cannot be feminists are, in effect, accepting this kind of thinking. The only difference is that instead of agreeing that women by birth are not the equal of men, they are saying that men by birth are incapable of accepting them as equals. Either by birth or by the way they are raised, men cannot help being what they are and that is, when it comes to women, hopeless.

All that does, though, is perpetuate the we-are-what-we-are school of thinking, which is what got women into trouble in the first place. The fact of the matter is we don't know what we are--what is learned and what is inherited, what is possible and what is not. Birth and upbringing is not all there is; there is also intent and sentiment and a desire to do what, for want of a better term, can be called "the right thing."

That is what whites wanted when they enlisted in the cause of civil rights and that is what men want when they call themselves feminists. You don't have to be black to be for civil rights; you don't have to be a woman to be a feminist--just, if you're a man, a bit more of a man.