"You know the strange thing? About 10 years ago we were busily trying to persuade the world that there was a problem, that discrimination against women existed. Then, a year ago, we were trying to convince the press that the problem hadn't been solved. now, here we are, the establishment, being attacked by the radical right."
The woman with a touch of irony in her voice is Kay Clarenbach, executive director of the National Women's Conference, which meets Nov. 18 in Houston. For the past year, this experienced political science professor has been part of the establishment under attack.
The conference she has helped to organize was called by President Ford are funded by Congress in order to produce a consensus report on the most significant barriers left to women's equality in the country. THe International Women's Year Committee helped write a slate of important issues - including a displaced homemaker bill, child care, women's health and the ERA - to be considered at 56 state and territorial conventions preceding the national conference.
But this month, when the 1,442 delegates arrive in Texas, trailed by 643 members of the press and thousands of observers, they're as likely to produce a confrontation as a consensus. As one staffer puts it: "My worst scenario is that it will end in total chaos and disaster, with nothing accomplished except the performance the national media is expecting.
Kay Clarenbach is right. Yesterday's conservatives have become today's radicals.
At the moment it's the delegates in favor of women's rights who are carefully studying their Robert's Rules of Order, and giving each other pep talks on how to keep the troops in line. The coalition against women's rights are the ones being schooled in the politics of disruption.
The transmogrification of the right is amazing. In 1970, the traditionalists used to hiss curses at feminists for their "aggressive" and "unfeminine" tactics. Today Phyllis Schlafly's newsletter casually and routinely labels everyone in favor of the ERA a "Lib/Lesbian." This year it's the right that has come out of the Aggression Closet throwing punches.
After a calm run of state conventions, where the platform of the national committee was passed intact, the right-wing coalition began fighting. By June a coalition of Mormons, Right-to-Lifers, fundamentalists, Ku Klux Klan members and right-wing politicals stampeded the meetings in Oklahoma, Missouri, Montana and Nebraska. They organized against abortion and the ERA, and against the gay rights issue, which was placed on the platform in many states.
In Utah, the Mormon church bussed 12,000 women to the state conference, where they voted, as instructed, against everything on the platform - including world peace. In Mississippi, they elected an entirely white delegation, including five males and the wife of the Grand Imperial Wizard of the KKK.
They disrupted the conferences they couldn't take over, with noisemaking, hymm-singing, and bullhorns. In some states, they attempted to slow down the voting process in hopes that the rest of the women would give up and go home.
Still, the rightists head for Houston with a minority of votes. From conference estimates, only 15 to 20 per cent of the delegates will vote against the most controversial issues - the ERA or abortion. But they may divert all the media attention, and turn a conference into a fight-and-folly show for the evening news. At worst, they could accomplish their current goal: to halt the proceedings entirely.
The "establishment," of course, hopes to prevent it. Their concern is the one potentially positive result from the rise of the new radicals. Over the years, women's movement conventions have been the scenes of internal political battles over the "purity" of feminist politics. They've been raucous - democratic but often divisive.
Now with this clear external threat, the majority of the delegates going to Houston seem concerned with putting aside their own philosophical differences. As one experienced conference-goer said: "We have met the enemy, and for once, it isn't us."