Nearly 15,000 women met in Houston last week to attend the National Women's Conference, and I was one of them. My editors, I believe, thought I would write biased stories. My friends thought I would have a great time. And I thought I might see some of the city.
None of those things happened.
The presence of so many women, not just as conference-goers but as conference-runners, was both awesome and startling.For the first time, I was one of the majority. For the first time, my colleague Bill Curry was in a minority. I felt quite comfortable: he, to my secret thought, felt uneasy the entire four [WORD ILLEGIBLE]
[WORD ILLEGIBLE] wasn't the only one.
[WORD ILLEGIBLE] Saturday session ended after [WORD ILLEGIBLE] ight, and most delegates walked [WORD ILLEGIBLE] few blocks to where most of us [WORD ILLEGIBLE] staying. As we approached the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] ntersection. I saw a uniformed po- [WORD ILLEGIBLE] an standing in the empty street [WORD ILLEGIBLE] what appeared to be a look of hor- [WORD ILLEGIBLE] his face as this horde of women [WORD ILLEGIBLE] red suddenly converging on one [WORD ILLEGIBLE] corner.He stood back and [WORD ILLEGIBLE] d, "If you don't obey the traffic [WORD ILLEGIBLE] you'll be breaking the law!" [WORD ILLEGIBLE] ad worried that I would be at- [WORD ILLEGIBLE] by militant partisans for not [WORD ILLEGIBLE] an avowed feminist, but fortunately this didn't happen. Just as I [WORD ILLEGIBLE] ticed that all the sergeants-at-arms were women (unlike Bill, who found this strange but obeyed their dictates without questions), so were there so many women reporters that our professional nonpartisans demeanor was barely noticed.
An all-female world meant there were no lewd remarks to contend with, no self-conscious jokes about women's libbers and for the first time there were more women's bathrooms than men's.
I found myself less preoccupied with my appearance than I usually am and totally without the fear that I usually have in a strange city of being vulnerable to physical attack.
I felt neither ashamed of being at a conference of women nor embarrased about aspects of their behavior that were different from a convention dominated by men - babies cared for in the midst of debate, occasional tears, spontaneous singing. That these women were not experienced travelers was obvious: in some cases staying at a hotel was a rare, if not entirely new, experience, and there were many who did not have credit cards.
The only hookers at the convention were the ones lobbying for the decriminalization of prostitution, and public drunkenness of the raucous sort was largely absent.
But once beyond these superficial differences between this and a male-dominated conference, I found that covering it was basically just a job.
The woman's movement, as this conference made clear, is no longer a small group of intellectuals meeting in someone's living room in New York. It has developed into a force considered socially acceptable by President's wives and housewives from South Dakota, by the middle-aged and older women as well as young.
The all-female environment at the conference gave us a misleading but intriguing glimpse into what a world with power shared equally might hold. The generally civilized behavior of te delegates, the concern about important human issues and the serious attitude that most delegates took toward their work - all this was impressive.
But I don't think this conference should be repeated. It has served its purpose: to focus attention on women and their specific concerns and, by so doing, to bring about a recognition of women as a political force. The product of the meeting is general, both in terms of the 25-point "Plan of Action" for possible White House or congressional action and the invigorating enthusiasm generated to inspire feminists on to work for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Future meetings must deal with more complex specifics, and it is hard for me to see what use there would be to such a meeting without the participation of men.
Bill said that in what became for him a neuter atmosphere, "I found myself talking to women about their jobs, their thoughts, their lives, without regard to how attractive or single they may be."
He alo found that he believed Bella Abzug when she said that men will be better off when women have equality. "Men will have to compete a little harder, become a little better if they can't have something just because they are men." he said.
Women will continue to strengthen their political muscles, just as I strengthened my professional ones by covering this conference. This is true also of the conference opponents, women who said there was no need for this meeting. They learned political skills, too, and got out of the kitchen by organizing rallies, writing leaflets and holding press conferences.
The only regret I have is not buying a T-shirt I'm told was on sale at the conference. Printed on it is the slogan "I survived the National Women's Conference." Actually, I would have boughttwo, so I could give one to Bill for Christmas.