I hadn't actually been following Phyllis Schlafly's pronouncements on the National Women's Conference since last August. Then, her newsletter warned "God-fearing, pro-family women" that the meeting in Houston this weekend will be full of "Libs and Lesbians, Frauds and Follies," trying to promote "witchcraft," among other things.
So it is only recently that I heard the author of "The Power of the Positive Woman" issuing her negative notice that Houston will mark the end of the women's movement.
Well, admittedly people have been writing premature obituaries on the womens movement since its beginning. But this one is getting some credence, especially among those people who would mourn for it with all the sincerity of Howard Hughes' heirs.
But the women's movement is not something that you can end as if it were a novel. It's a catchall term for a vast social change: the "movement" of women from one dominant life pattern into many.
The most obvious "movement" has been into the work force. The changes in the family style and life-cycle plans of American women have simply become a fait accompli. It is, for example, already true that the average American woman works outside the home for 25 years of her adulthood. It is already true that half the women with children under the age of 18 are employed. It is already true that we have more two-parent working families in America than families where only the father is a breadwinner.
If 40 per cent of the American work force disappeared from their jobs following the conference in Houston, that would indeed be the work of witch-craft.
But the women's movement is at another kind of turning point. The issue isn't whether women will spend their entire adult lives in the kitchen. The issue for homemakers is whether their job can be made secure enough so that women who can afford to choose it will dare to. The issue for employed women is whether they will end up as "liberated" as the unliberated Russian women.
In Russia, the women are free to work, all right, but at second-class pay and maintaining the major responsibility for the home. Most of the working women in this country now carry more than half the burden of home, while earning half the wages at work.
If the women's movement were to stop on a dime, right now, it would not signal a return to traditional days. It would mean another generation of employed women living the Russian model - which is cutely referred to as Juggling. It would mean another generation of homemakers whose children grow up an leave them, and then become a statistic in the Department of Labor's depressing category called Reentry women. See the Middle-Aged Women Try to Get a Job!
It might well mean yet another generation of displaced homemakers whose marriages have ended (as all do) in death or divorce - and often poverty.
In my own mind, what's at stake in Houston (without being overly dramatic about it) is the perception of political power. Everone agrees that the conference will be a symbol, a message, a test of clout. And when everyone agrees, that symbol becomes a powerful reality, especially in the minds of the male majority who meke public policy.
Political power is needed not only to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, but moreover to convince businesses that fathers and mothers need more flexible hours. To persuade the government to place a priority on enforcing equal pay for equal work. To make legislators or fall on support for some kind of naitonal child-care policy.
The conference is bound to be at least as raucous as a national political convention. Why shouldn't be it? At least one Pink Lady will confront one Radical Feminist in front of network cameras.
But if the events in Houston also convey a sense of some consensus, and momentum, a perception of political power, we will be able to move on, and to make the kind of supportive changes needed in a transitional time.