IN TERMS OF POLICY recommendations to the President, its formal goal, the National Women's Conference in Houston last weekend produced about what might have come from a smaller, less expensive gathering of women's-rights activists. Politically, though, this huge get-together was significant both for the efforts it may have stimulated and for what it told the rest of the nation about the women's movement and its current strengths and strains.
The confrontation between the conference's organizers and its opponents, led by Phyllis Schlafly, turned out to be less disruptive than anticipated - largely because each camp employed the best tactics that the event's arithmetic allowed. The Schlafly forces, far outnumbered among the delegates, concentrated on making their points through a separate rally and statements to the press. The conference's sponsors, with a majority well in hand, permitted - and controlled - discussion and made the most of the social and economic diversity among the delegates who voted for the action plan.
That diversity was real and intriguing, for all its inevitable overtones of a central-casting attempt to round up examples of every conceivable slice of American womanhood. That does not mean that the conferees represented a majority of all American women; that claim is as hard to prove or disprove as the opponents' cries that the delegates spoke for no one beyond themselves. What was surely demonstrated, for anyone who still doubted it, was that women from all those regions, backgrounds and circumstances not only common concerns but an impressive amount of energy and organizing skill. The conference should finally have put to rest the notion that the women's movement appeals only to Easterners or liberal Democrats or affluent suburbanites or any other narrow slice of society.
Watched carefully, the proceedings also gave the lie to the charge by Mrs. Schlafly and others that the movement is socially radical or "anti-family." The views that those critics harp on - support for publicly funded abortions and for the civil rights of homosexuals - were also those that caused the most uneasiness among the delegates. The broadest accord, on the other hand, involved the most family-oriented concerns, such as assistance for battered wives and children, and the legal and economic problems of homemakers, widows and divorcees.
What happens next? The plan of action now goes to the President, who is required by law to send his own recommendations to Congress soon. However, many of the conference's goals - from the revision of inheritance laws to the top-priority item, ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment - depend on action by the states. In that regard, it may turn out that the most significant event of the month was not the Houston conference at all, but rather the defeat of anti-ERA Del. James M. Thomson in Alexandria. This showed dramatically that a pro-ERA coalition could marshal a clear majority when it mattered - at the polls. If the alliances and sense of commitment generated at Houston do produce more political action of similar force, the conference will indeed have had a lasting and positive effect on American politics.