THE NATIONAL Women's Conference, which opens in Houston today, was a poor idea from the start. Such federally financed conferences, whether on women's issues or children and youth or urban policy generally give a public-relations push to ideas that don't need it and generate so much controversy over other issues that they create a public impression of even more discord than actually exists. Beyond these general liabilities, the women's conference has had special problems. Its charter, pushed through Congress by women's-rights advocates during International Women's Year (1975), directs the delegates to "identify the barriers that prevent women from participating fully and equally in all aspects of national life" and to send recommendations to the President. The trouble with that is that American men and women have so many different ideas about equality, participation and what family and cultural life should be like - as well as whether various laws defining the status of women are really barriers or shields.
The planning for Houston has not emphasized accomodation of these varying views. The conference's organizers, headed by former Rep. Bella Abzug, have advanced a "plan for action" that touches every inflammotory base. Among other things, it supports Medicaid-funded abortions, freedom in sexual matters, and federal aid for "voluntary, flexible-hour, bias-free, nonsexist, quality child care and development programs." This platform is, we believe, overloaded and doctrinaire.
In addition, the organizers have been trying to paint their opposition - including the stop-ERA forces and Mormon groups - as right-wing radicals whose views are somehow illegitimate or even dictated by men . However shrill some opposition groups may be, the drive to discredit them may wind up discrediting the meeting's sponsors and alienating some of their less ideological friends.
Why worry about any of this? The problem is that many political leaders and citizens may just sit back to watch a brawl. Some of the public's most harmful stereotypes of women in politics could thus be confirmed. That could hurt the Equal Rights Amendment and other important measures - such as reform of rape laws - whose progress depends on being generally perceived as reasonable and fair.
Moreover, such an outcome would misrepresent the real social and political changes that have occured in the past several years. The more flagrant kinds of sex discrimination are gradually being dealt with by Congress, the courts and many states. The volatility of other issues, notably those bearing directly on the family, has been generally recognized. More and more women (and men) realize they can back the Equal Rights Amendment or the general concept of broader opportunity without endorsing all feminist rhetoric. And countless women, however diverse and sometimes tentative in their thinking, have become increasingly active and effective - not only on "women's issues" but across the spectrum of public concerns. We hope these quieter messages come through from Houston. It may take hard listening to hear them in the din.