Whether feminist elect to be obstructionist or cooperative toward the new body pulitic, the issue that is going to separate the girls from the women and the New Right from the vast majority of Americans is a proposed constitutional amendement forbidding abortion. The hottest feminist (and non-feminist) potato in town may serve to unite a factional women's movement. For feminists are setting out to build substantial common structures for political action and to begin the wrenching job of self-discipline.
The flak is considerable. One does not "cut" a 501-C3 (tax-exempt status) with the limited available feminist dollars and welcome coalescence, much less a merger; nor can our super-democratic way of doing business be somehow made to fit into a quasi-military action against the anti-abortionists. The core of feminism is humanism -- not the most efficient quality for a warrior.
An old battle, for the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, dominates some of the thinking of the leadership. What resources, if any, should be directed toward keeping that flame bright? Feminist seats in state legislatures area crucial to the fate of both proposed amendments -- costly acquisitions for depleted campaign coffers. And there is the pressing problem of access. No one invited the feminist leadership to dance at the Inaugural Balll. (If there is a Reagan in the movement's future, it will be the classy Maureen, who stumped for the ERA up to the last minute before joining her father's campaign.)
No Pollyanna I; but despite painful and costly losses on Election Day -- Carey Peck to Robert Dornan in California and Elizabeth Holtzman to Alfonse D'Amato in New York, plus incumbents across the country -- no feminism in doubt or looks to feminist tenets for culpability. Quite the contrary. The cry is for an intra-organizational commitment to do it right next time.
The imperative is grass-roots organizing for political power. One wants to pour sticky glue all over the leadership and the rank-and-file membership for the purpose of coalescense, but the fact is that the care -- and perpetuation -- of existing power bases is slowing down the unification process. Since the movement is shy about revealing cracks in its solidarity, much like any institution that depends on image for its livelihood, the decisions about who will control what are not solely based on competence. Consensus is the objective, but consensus is unlikely. A measure of the self-discipline among feminists will be our willingness to submit to an organizing council and to agree on who should run it. At some future time, the feminist community will have to struggle with the choice of joining a larger coalition of "outs" or going it alone.
There is some comfort these days for working feminists and grass-roots activists in an event that took place Feb. 4 to mark the opening of the new Congress. A "presence," as it was called. Nice, although it is no substitute for political leverage. Nor was it intended as such. This is the movement at its visible best, organized and professional, presenting a vigorous collective feminist persona to the media and to the country. (Media coverage has been another matter: also organized but un professional.) But no amount of activity can camouflage the need for massive organizing of women, by women, not for show but for clout. Feminists are talking for the first time in realistic terms about power and our lack thereof.
And that is the crux of the problem. If the women's movement is going to move at all, it must go after collective bargaining as its primary goal. How best to accomplish this? At the polls? As pols? By weilding our mightiest weapons, the boycott, already in place and legalized? Coordinated efforts at all three?
The debate continues. Listening, I hear agreement about past errors. Tackling the political process at the middle, or even the top, has not worked. Since women can be phobic about starting -- and getting stuck -- at the bottom, axioms for political progress have not always been applied to the movement. But, of course, they must. And too, there was the castastrophic mistake of making the ERA a woman's issue, which it is not. It is a people's issue, a family matter.
No one knows all the answers for positioning the issues and the players. But feminist organizational representatives, elected officials, technicans, fund-raisers and generalists will continue to meet day after day and far into the nights, long after the last shuttle has left for New York, to hammer out the best policies for the future. Otherwise, we will find ourselves sitting out the next Inaugural Ball.