Women of both major political parties met here this weekend to plan efforts to make themselves an "independent political force" to secure equal representation at the 1980 national nominating conventions.
Representing the liberal wings of both the Democratic and the Republican parties, more than 1,000 members of the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC) met ot discuss strategies and techniques and to listen to speeches that sounded yet again the complaint that women do not have equal representation in the corridors of power.
But while resolutions were being debated, and workshops on such topics as "The Right Wing" and "Image Awareness" were being conducted, there was evidence of political courtship.Emissaries from presidential candidates were drawn here like flies to honey, wooing workers as well as allies, although endorsements were not on the agenda.
Carter administration and campaign workers, aware that their romance with the Democrats among these women is on the rocks, were a visible presence.
Keynote speaker Patricia Roberts Harris, secretary of housing and urban development, noted cautiously as she started her speech: "I'd like to get my applause early because I'm not so sure I'm going to get it later."
She was well-received, however, after a speech that lauded President Carter's appointments and railed against "inequities" facing women today.
Administration officials generally said they were not at the convention merely to shore up support for Carter, but because they were members of the NWPC. Carter campaign political director Jack Walsh attended as a "guest," and Sarah Weddington, a special assistant to the president, said she was attending "to give information about Carter's accomplishments" and to "see old friends."
Weddington "called last week and asked to speak at the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] lunch," said one convention organizer. "We just couldn't find any time for her."
Midge Costanza, ousted as a presidential assistant last year, said she has not decided if she will support Carter in 1980. "If he wants my support, he'll have to ask for it," she said, "not Hamilton [Jordan], not any of the other guys, but him. "
Lynda Johnson Robb, newly appointed head of the President's Advisory Council for Women, announced that she has asked Carter to hold a "Camp David summit meeting on ERA ratification."
The meeting would be for "intensive brainstorming under presidential leadership," she said, to develop a strategy to get ERA ratified in at least three of the 15 states that have not done so.
Republicans, who are in the minority in the NWPC, were courted by representatives of presidential hopefuls John B. Connally, Goerge Bush, Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (Tenn.) and Rep. John B. Anderson (Ill.). Supporters of Ronald Reagan had reserved a booth in the display area but failed to appear.
Mary Crisp, cochairman of the Republican National Committee, said she was urging women to remain uncommitted until next year to have time to assess the candidates' positions on issues of concern to women as well as the candidates' political viability. In 1976, 31 percent of the delegates to the Republican National Convention were women.
Founded in 1971 as the "#political arm of the women's movement," the NWPC has developed from a small special-interest group to a 40,000-member organization that poured more than $350,000 into state legislative races last year. It claims credit for "doubling the women delegates to the Republican National Convention and tripling the women at the Democratic convention" in 1972.
The "old girl network" that the caucus, along with other women's groups, fosters is another accomplishment its leaders cite. But they also realize that to capitalize on its gains, the group must move from focusing only on women's issues into such areas as energy, housing and inflation.
"As we become more sophisticated, we're able to embrace more issues," said spokesman Ellen Malcom. "It's a function of growing up."
But, aside from speeches intended to rouse the delegates' enthusiasm for returning to organize in their communities, the focus was largely on organizing for the 1980 conventions. Malcolm said the NWPC was one of the first groups to begin working on convention representation.
"The power still flows through the political parties," said Crisp. "Women get impatient; they want things to happen quickly. But you have to build step by step in order to acquire power."
Bella Abzug, deposed chairman of the president's Advisory Council for Women and a founder of NWPC, told the delegates they must aim for a united bloc of votes at the conventions. She urged them to remain uncommitted to any candidate or to support "favorite-daughter" candidates to coalesce voting strength.
She said women must struggle "not merely to become part of a male-dominated structure but to change the structure.... Our responsibility in 1980 is to show that women can lead the way. We have the numbers; we can organize those numbers."
The Democratic Party approved a rule change last year requiring that 50 percent of the 3,331 delegates to its 1980 convention be women. Although this rule is being challenged in a move that could affect five of the largest state delegations, the women here are counting on asserting their presence in large numbers.
"But it's not enough that they just be women," said one organizer. "They can't just be warm bodies; they have to be our warm bodies. For the few weeks that you are a delegate you're a very powerful person."
Harris, in a 40-minute speech, said that "despite significant individual achievement, as a group we are marching back from equality with men." She said that in 1955, the median income of working women was 63.9 percent that of men; today it is 58.9 percent. Male high school dropouts earn more than the average college-educated woman, and "nearly half of the female heads of households support themselves and their children on $6,000 or less a year," she said.
Harris said that black women and white women are economically at the "bottom of the barrel" together. CAPTION: Picture, Abzug, center, passes symbolic torch to NWPC chairman Millie Jeffrey. Olympic athlete Donna deVarona is at left. UPI