Sensing a spirit and a unity of historic proportions, the leaders in the nation's women's movement sent thousands of followers home from Houston today on a mission which they hope will end sex discrimination once and for all.
Their departure followed four days of federally funded politicizing and organizing that finally resulted in the participants basking in their overriding of differences in race, lifestyle, class and, sometimes, even opinion.
Scores of women joined in singing "We shall go forth" as the National Women's Conference, called by the Congress and the President to formulate a women's agenda, officially closed.
In the last hours of the conference, however, the enthusiasm and pride created during the weekend threatened to dissolve into chaos as weary delegates tried to get last-minute attention for causes as disparate ast he arts and self-determination for the District of Columbia. (See WOMEN, Ao, Col. 1>
When the last recommendation on the agenda - creation of a Cabinet-level Department of Women - was defeated, it was apparent that the discipline and orgainzation of the "proplan" caucus, which organized the approval of the rest of the controversial 26-point "Plan of Action," had dissipated. Feminists who opposed the "ghettoizing" of women's concerns in one department of the government formed a coincidental coalition with conservatives who opposed expansion of the government to overturn the proposal.
To underscore the fact that the majority's esprit was not equivalent to unanimity, organized dissidents, who complained throughout the meeting that they were being unfairly ignored, staged a walkout just before adjournment, singing "God Bless America" as they made a beeline to a hastily called press conference. The remaining delegates, responding to a plea from presiding officer Addie Wyatt, joined hands and voices in a show of unity and support - one more time - for the Equal Rights Amendment.
It is unkown whether the skills and committments forged here will produce the legislative and social changes the majority of delegates here so urgently seek.
Nevertheless, most of them left here feeling that the conference and their efforts to say something to a watching world had been a success.
But then, the smaller group of women who used the conference as a forum to dispute that majority's claim of representing the mainstream of American women, felt their cause had been well served, too.
"This doesn't play in Peoria," said Dorris Holmes of Georgia, referrings to the hours of debate over abortions, civil and child-custody rights for lesbians, and federally funded child care. The 25 recommendations that resulted from this $5 million government-sponsored event will be sent to President Carter and Congress of action.
But many of the changes sought here are not Washington's to grant. They lie in the hands of state and local officials and in the minds of the public. To that end, the leaders hope that this convention and the process that led up to it have generated new candidates and activists to advance causes and defeat opposing officials.
"You are going to defeat those elected officials who do not support our sensibivities," presidential assistant Midge Costanza today told the assembled women. "Anyone who doesn't think the past four days were committed to political action is crazy."
One delegate, Dorris Wilke Sanders, a 32-year-old graduate student from Grand Forks, N.C., said the meeting here was an influential step in a "process" toward her possible decision to run for the state legislature. She said her participation had already generated statewide press coverage and recognition of her.
Many women pointed to the coalition of racial and ethnic minority groups as one of the most significant and poignant alliances to come out of the conference. Unhappy with the resolution proposed by conference organizers, which simply urged that "double discrimination" be eliminated and the bilingual programs and services be started, minoirty women formed a caucus to develop an alternative.
The result was a strong and wideranging plea for government action to deal with involuntary sterilization, housing problems, culturally biased tests, affirmative action programs, the 1972 Indian Education Act, and other issues. Other sections dealt with the problems of poor working conditions, Hispanic mothers with U.S.-born children, unemployment among teenage black women, and services for female migrant farmworkers.
"This is the first time I know of at any political convention that all these minorities have worked together," said Joy Simonsen of Washington, D.C.
A group of Maryland delegates - including two blacks, an American Indian and an Asian American - said that the coalition was one of the best memories they will take home with them. "We are learning to use power," said Sylvia Law, director of education at Morgan State College.
Part of the success of this minority coalition was due to the double and sometimes triple identities many of these women hold. "Last night I rejoiced when you gave me my rights as a woman," delegate Patricia Benavidez said Sunday during the debate on homoeexual rights. "This afternoon I rejoiced when you gave me my rights as a Chicana. Please give me my opportunity for full equality and civil rights as a lesiban."
She was cheered loudly, and the conference incorporated full civil rights and child custody for homosexuals into its national plan for action.
That, however, became further evidence in the eyes of opponents that while a consensus was reached in the hothouse of feminiism it could not survive in the real world because it is a viewpoint shared by few.
"They wanted to propagandize their viewpoint and present it as the view of the majority," said Indiana state Sen. Joan M. Gubbins, a delegate whose whistle-blowing signaled a backs-turned, heads-bowed protest of the gay rights vote. "What they now show is that they are for issuexs most Americans disagree with, such as the lesbian issue."
Gubbins is a member of the Eagle a Forum, a conservative group headed by Phyllis Schlafly, who staged to counterrally here Saturday proclaiming that her anti-ERA, anti-abortion, anti-child care center, anti-gay rights opinions are instead the majority view.
However, those feelings will be expressed as a minority view in the report of this conference.
Members of the D.C. delegation were disgruntled because a plan to get an endorsement of self-determination for the District was scuttled by the conference resolution committee on the basis that it was not a women's issue.
Some 15,000 people participated in or observed this gathering, which is generally regarded as the largest to sexual equality and recommend corrective measures.
In addition, the conference was carried live on public broadcasting television, and attracted a media corps that virtually equalled the number of voting delegates.
This was perhaps as much a recognition as anything that the women's movement, whatever its future, has, with less unity, already altered America.
Betty Fredian, the woman who fostered the movement a decade ago with her book, "The Feminine Mystique," put it this way in an interview: "The women's movement has absolutely changed the mainstream of American life. The diversity of women here - they are young, and old, in blude jeans and suburban sweaters, square and fashionable and chic - and they are together in an incredible way.
"I have never seen anything like this."