The conference on Cape Code brought together 62 women state legislators from 20 states. Most of them were strangers when they gathered on Thursday evening. But by Saturday, when they posed on the steps for the "class portrait," bonds had been formed that crossed party and state lines.
As they were milling about, following the photographer's commands, someone began to sing the civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome." Others joined, and the chorus swelled.
Ruth Mandel, the director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute, who ran the conference and described the scene to me, said, "I was close to tears -- and I wasn't alone."
That conference is symbolic of a fundamental fact of American politics: the growing power and growing solidarity of women.
It is not news, but it probably needs reemphasis at this moment. June 30 marks the official death of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, the cause that has consumed most of the energy of women activists (on both sides of the issue) for the past decade. Its demise is being treated by some as a sign that the "uppity females" who have been in the forefront of that battle have been given their comeuppance, and now things can go back to normal.
There could not be a more mistaken notion. Women have been strengthened by this battle, and their power is bound to increase.
Kathy Wilson, the head of the National Women's Political Caucus, a participant at the Cape Cod conference, put the change in very simple terms: "Ten years ago," she said, "a group like that would have taked about how to dress for legislative sessions. This year, they are talking about how to get to be speaker."
Talking to a variety of women leaders, it is clear that the lesson they have learned from the ERA fight is that there is no substitute for power. "More and more women," Wilson said, "understand that real power is elective power, and elective power depends on grass-roots organization."
The number of women holding public office has grown significantly in the decade that ERA has been in the legislatures. In the legislatures, their numbers jumped from 362 to 901.
As Kathy Stanwick, Mandel's deputy, put it, "The ERA drive gave a political education to a whole group of women who wouldn't have been active otherwise. It raised their consciousness and gave them political skills they have begun to apply to other issues as well."
Unless I am totally misreading the signs, defeat has also steeled their determination. The NWPC will hold a press conference on Tuesday to announce a drive to defeat the 13 male legislators it blames for stopping ERA three states short of the 38 required for ratification.
Most of those involved in the ratification battle will concede, at least privately, that their own tactical errors contributed to the loss. The biggest mistake, they say, was spending too many years lobbying legislators -- "saying please," as one woman put it -- and waiting too long to start defeating the opponents.
But now, the women's movement has built a political machine. The National Organization for Women had 300 organizers, drawing salaries for expenses, at work in four target states, North Carolina, Florida, Illinois and Oklahoma, in the closing months of the ratification drive.
That is a far larger field force than either national political party supports, and NOW, with its direct-mail campaign, was easily able to raise the money to finance it.
The mobilization came too late for ERA, but it is certain to carry over into the fall campaigns, where, once again, record numbers of women will be running for governor, senator, U.S. representative, the state legislatures and local offices.
NOW claims to have raised $75,000 in three days for the women opponent of one of the Florida state senators who voted against ratification. That kind of performance spells clout.
It did not, in the case of ERA, spell victory. But if there has ever been a movement whose long-term influence is not measured by the headlines of the day, it is the women's movement. It is stronger, better led, more amply financed, better organized, more determined and more united than it has ever been.
And if that does not translate to power, then history is a false guide.