A decade after a handful of feminists symbolically discarded bras and girdles in a rediculed gesture of independence, thousands of women gathered here today for a massive assertion of their claim that the American women's movement now speaks for a majority.
The four-day National Women's Conference, formally called to act on a 26-point plan for national legislation to foster equality, is viewed by all sides as a crucial test of that claim.
Organizations, leaders and rank-and-file participants [WORD ILLEGIBLE] for change view the gathering as an opportunity to present themselves as a broad-based, mainstream [WORD ILLEGIBLE] politically significant movement.
Eight blocks from their convention center, meanwhile, there are other groups opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion government-sponsored child care and homosexual rights. They are trying to portray themselves as the majority, and are saying that the convention will end the women's movement by exposing it to the nation as a minor group of radicals and lesbian opposed to the family.
But however the public arbitrates those claims, the organizers and the overwhelming majority of the delegates believe that the federally funded convention - and the 12 months of state meetings and conventions that preceded it - has already had its most important effect. They feel that the process has attracted women who had never had contact with the women's movement, has articulated concerns about the issues, and increased political skills. They feel that the result will be a new momentum for the women's movement at a time when it is needed.
In addition, sympathizers hope to influence untold millions of other women through media coverage.
The gathering, running on $5 million of taxpayers' money, discussing for the first time in a national forum the gamut of women's issues, and promising political fireworks, has attracted so much attention that the number of accredited media representatives virtually equals the 1,442 voting delegates.
Few of the delegates make any attempt to hide their feeling that the media has become an integral part of the conference. In casual conversation, organizers frequently tell reporters. "It all depends on you." Others candidly admit it is a "media event."
NBC television has sent 80 reporters, engineers, editors and cameramen. ABC's Good Morning America program sent a crew of 12 and broadcast its entire two-hour show from Houston this morning. Every major newspaper has teams here, and there are correspondents from a Norwegian magazine and Canadian broadcasting as well.
Those opposed to many of the issues begin advocated at the conference also hope to tap this rich media pool, in their effort to discredit the conference as a fringe group.
But the conservative threat has had the effect of drawing together many of those in the women's movement who seek to present a unified stance despite very real divisions within their own ranks.
Nearly the entire Missouri delegation is opposed to legalized abortions, but they are split on the equal rights amendment, said delegation head Anne O'Donnell. O'Donnell herself said, "I have always been a feminist, but I don't plan on being driven out because I oppose abortion."
She said most of her delegates also oppose affirmative action for lesbians, another issue that has created a great deal of controversy.
The weeks and days leading to this conference have been marked with intense lobbying and organizing by supporters of key legislative proposals. "I've never been so sought after," said Connie Threinen, a Wisconsin delegate, who said she received nightly telephone calls seeking her support on such issues as the ERA, abortion and lesbian rights.
Backers of the Equal Rights Amendment consider a strong showing here important, since it has appeared to be stalled three states short of ratification. Thus, they have been keying in on uncommitted delegates. Mureen Aspin has been working full time for one month for ERAmerica identifying uncommitted delegates and securing organizers in each state delegation to assure that all supporters are present when the ERA vote is taken.
Repeatedly, many delegates and women's movement leaders say that the "26-Point National Action Plan," drawn up at state meetings for final action here before delivery to the President and Congress, has been perhaps most important as a vehicle for bringing women together in a kind of political Woodstock.
"More than half of what is crucial has already happened," said Gloria Steinem, editor of Ms. Magazine, referring to the 56 state and territorial meetings where delegates were selected for this conference. "If there were no plan at all, and women came here to talk and to go to workshops and share experiences, it would still be important."
"I'm from Maine and she's from Washington (state) and we're so similar," says Vivian Massey of Old Town. "I'm amazed at how similar. This is going to reinforce my working for this. If it was just a local movement, it might fizzle out. But it's a national movement and I know it's not going to fizzle out."
Her newfound acquaintance from Tumwater, Wash., Jacqueline Delahunt, said she sees her participation in the conference "as a chance to have an impact on the lives of other women." She acknowledges, too, as Steinem did, that the audience for the events here also contains the participants.
As Lilialyce Akers, a sociology professor and delegate from Louisville, Ky., put it, "It will generate a sense of spirit and motivation, and once you're here there's no going back."