They are all bankers sitting in front of me. A thousand women, they range around the banquet tables, their ranks spotted with a few male spouses and bosses.
It is an impressive number. A thousand bank officers, all meeting at The National Association of Banking Women.
The NABW is, I know only one among the hundreds of professional and business women's groups founded during the first wave of opportunity. Like the others, it grew slowly for a half-century, as women inched their way up the ladder, one by one. Then, fueled by the women's movement its membership catapulted in a decade from 10,000 to 27,000.
But today, spending just a few hours with some of these women. I hear hints of a new uncertainty, a fragility -- even among women who have made progress, who have made "it." There is, everywhere, a concern, sometimes subterranean, sometimes on the surface, about whether the gains women have made can survive the times.
The women here are bankers. The bankers here are women. They would prefer that there was no conflict between these two pieces of their identity. Yet, sometimes there is.
On my right, the thoughtful and articulate president of the NABW, Jane McGavock Smith of Richmond, Va., shares her concern about the need to deregulate the banks. We talk about the problems and pressures on banking in this economy, and then go on to talk about the problems and pressures on women. She is, symbolically, a bank vice-president, a compliance officer and pregnant.
During the week, the women hear presidential assistant Elizabeth Dole enlist their support for Reagan economic programs. During the week, they also hear that the Reagan cuts in social programs are directed most harshly at women. Double messages.
A half-dozen participats share with me the fear, not of Reaganomics but of Reaganatmosphere. It is harder for women even in the higher strata, to breath easily.
Alene Moris, a longtime consultant to the NABW and a 52-year-old Seattle feminist, worries that once again the men in power have been given "psychological permission" to discriminate against women.
This news raises goose bumps across the flesh of women who have struggled up. Even those who are "Not Feminists But" owe their advance in part to the women's movement. The average NABW member came up the ranks from bank teller. She rose through affirmative atmosphere, if not affirmative action. That road, too, seems narrower now.
In a tight economy it is harder for anyone to move. The gap between the women who have and have not made it becomes increasingly harder to bridge. In tough times, even the women who have a foothold may worry more about slipping down than about helping others up.
Ten years ago, 15 years ago, there was a sense of "sisterhood" or commonality that cut across other lines, other differences between women. Then, almost all the women came up out of clerical work or homemaking or discrimination.
Now often the younger women, the "Hotshot MBAs," come with freshly minted degrees and short histories. They have not -- yet -- bumped against the ceiling of sex discrimination. They do not -- yet know what they have in common, even with the woman at this banquet, a prize-winner, who asked her husband for permission three times before he "let her" go to work.
Perhaps in my brief visit, I was too sensitive to the fibrillations of bad times. There is strength and hope here, too. There is the mutual support from women who come together to boost skills and confidence. There is the energy and commitment that comes only out organizing and organizations.
Still, I am struck by the sense of how vulnerable women really are inside this visible progress. Vulnerable to the economy. Vulnerable to the Reaganatmosphere. Vulnerable to their own conflicting loyalties. Vulnerable to the differences between women.
A thousand women. Yes, it is an impressive number. But I wonder if it will be next year.