THE PERSON I identify with most closely at the women's conference in Nairobi is a woman whose name I don't even know.
She is a Mexican, and she was a foil to one of the high priestesses of feminism, Betty Friedan. She was sitting at a table at a crowded restaurant; Friedan and Washington Post correspondent Mary Battiata, who brilliantly described the encounter, joined her.
The Mexican woman complained to Betty Friedan about the gaps in the conference agenda -- the organizers are struggling to limit it to women's issues only. She talked about the debt crisis in the Third World, for instance, and about the U.S. war against Nicaragua.
"We want to be left alone," she told an apparently fuming Friedan. "We want to solve our own problems."
"You are not a feminist," Friedan exploded. "Nicaragua has no place at this conference."
It took me back, all the way to 1971, to a conversation with Bella Abzug, who was telling me, triumphantly, about the formation of the National Women's Political Caucus. Hundreds of women were coming, the feminist movement was on its way, she said.
"Will they come out against the war in Vietnam?" I asked. To me it was the first item of national business.
"No," she said, "We have a lot of Republican women, and they don't want to come out against Richard Nixon."
I must confess that I said, "Well, then, what's the point?"
Bad, I know now, to say that certain things are expected of women. I was guilty of sexism. I was going counter to feminist doctrine that men and women are all human beings, not that different from one another. But I had noticed that men got us into the war and, because they find it hard to admit a mistake, would have trouble getting us out of it.
I had been exposed to feminism. My dear friend, Doris Fleeson, the great political columnist, was a fierce feminist and often instructed me, the product of a culture which thought men were absolutely wonderful but in need of help, on the necessity of militancy. She raged against exclusion from the all-male Gridiron Club, where news was to be had.
She told me that I had to see how important it was to have a woman senator, even though Margaret Chase Smith voted like a man -- and contrary to Doris' own views -- on military matters and the war. Her daughter, Doris O'Donnell, continued my instruction. The point was I was told that a woman should be in the Senate and free to be herself.
I knew all about inequality. I, for instance, resented deeply having to sit in the cramped balcony of the National Press Club, looking down on some Department of Agriculture flack, who, because he was a male, sat on the floor enjoying a second cup of coffee and a better look at the speaker -- whom I was covering and he was not.
I have to say, though, that it wasn't all bad. On the campaign trail, being the only woman, or one of a handful, with 90 colleagues was not the worst thing that ever happened to me. I never carried a typewriter or a suitcase -- wicked, treasonous, I know now -- and always got the good hotel room. It was the enjoyable side of inequality.
I should have been concerned, I was told, that there were not more women reporters on the trail. I was guilty of "veteranism," a young cousin of mine later told me. It is common, she said kindly, among women who came along before the feminist movement.
The women's movement flourished as no political force I had ever seen. I found its early advocates a bit strident. They emphasized abortion and gung-ho careerism too much for me. I couldn't go along with the nursing mother who insisted on being a firefighter, and I didn't think that unisex restrooms were quite the thing.
I was glad, however, to see that the "either-or" syndrome which crushed so many women of my generation -- marriage or a career -- was being dissipated.
It is all different now. Sometimes, these days, when I go to the Press Club, I sit at the head table. On the Ferraro campaign last fall, there were more women reporters than men. ERA may not be on the books, but it is on men's minds.
But part of me is still with the Mexican woman, who thinks that women have a special obligation to the world. I'm not saying we're better. But we see nuclear war in terms of burned babies and ruins, while men tend to mouth off about "kill-rates," megatonnage and other peripheral, technocratic nonsense.
When I served on a jury recently, we 12 women reached a verdict with a minimum of fuss. Ada, our gentle forelady, as we were all careful to call her, said at the end, "I shouldn't say it, but . . . " and after a long pause, "I think we did so well because we didn't have any men around."
We all knew just what she meant. I think my sister, the Mexican woman, would, too.