Ten years ago, it all seemed fairly straightforward. The goal of assorted women's groups, just entering the political process, was to elect women to office.
The female candidates then were few and far between. So was the money, the support, the clout of these organizations. On the whole, the candidates they supported ran against men, and ran against men who were not friendly to the cause of women's rights.
But by 1982, the list of complications has grown almost as long as the list of women candidates. There are 53 women running for House seats, three running for the Senate, 1,620 running for state legislatures, and their campaigns come in all sizes, shapes and philosophies.
The variations on the old good-woman-versus-bad-man theme are enormous. There are now women running against women, anti-feminist women running against pro-feminist men, somewhat progressive women running against more progressive men.
The complexity of all this can be seen in the controversy over endorsements. This year, for example, in a half-dozen congressional races the largest feminist organization in the country, the National Organization for Women, has supported male Democrats over female Republicans.
In the media aftermath, its leaders have been accused of becoming just a wing of the Democratic Party, dubbed the National Organization for Democratic Women. But to Eleanor Smeal, the outgoing president of NOW, the charges sound familiar and ironic.
"Two years ago," she remembers, "when NOW came out against the renomination of Jimmy Carter, we were charged with being Republicans. Now we're charged with being Democrats. We used to be criticized, 'Why are you only for women?' Now, in half a dozen races, we're supporting men, and we're being criticized for the reverse."
In fact, some of the races were easy calls. NOW wasn't likely to support the congressional candidacy of Ann Bagnell (R), the Phyllis Schlafly of North Carolina. And it happily endorsed the candidacy of Republican Rep. Claudine Schneider of Rhode Island.
But other endorsements, other campaigns, do reflect changing standards and goals. In the heated race between Republican Margaret Heckler and Democrat Barney Frank, for example, two incumbent representatives from Massachusetts are running for one redistricted seat.
On one side is Heckler, the ranking woman in Congress, and co-chair of the women's congressional caucus. She is not only one of a handful of pro-ERA Republican women, but over the years she has sponsored significant legislation on women's rights issues.
On the other side is Frank, a man whose record as an adovcate of women's rights is shorter but stronger than Heckler's. He has voted for abortion funds when she voted against them. He has voted against Reaganomics when she has voted for it.
Frank especially likes to remind audiences of the time when Heckler submitted a stunning analysis of the impact of the Reagan budget cuts on women and then voted for the budget. "I honestly believe," says Frank, "that by lending support to the anti-woman administration she's doing women more harm than good."
NOW faced a decision. As Smeal says, "We did not target Heckler, we don't want to target her, but when they redistricted we had to make a choice." They had a choice between a man and a woman, a choice between a pro and anti- abortion vote, a choice between a pro and anti- Reagan vote. They chose Frank.
Yet even that race was relatively simple compared to the New Jersey race, where Republican Millicent Fenwick is running against Democrat Frank Lautenberg for the Senate. After a good deal of debate, the New Jersey NOW decided to support Lautenberg, the Democrat, while the National Women's Political Caucus decided to support Fenwick, the woman.
As Smeal explains it, NOW's priority is to get rid of a Republican majority in the Senate. "Frankly, there's a fondness toward Fenwick. But the Republican-dominated Senate has been so bad on women's rights . . . we feel we must weigh the balance between the two." The NWPC, at its national level, has decided to support only women. Beyond that, its priority is bipartisanship. Kathy Wilson, the caucus head, says it remains determined "to get more progressive people elected to both parties."
Yet as Wilson also sees it, "The failure of our success is that as more women run they are not always running against targeted men. We are also running against our friends."
The conflicts of this election are likely to multiply in the decades ahead. Sex lines, party lines, policy lines form complicated, overlapping political patterns. Is it more in our interest to have a woman in office, more in our interest to change the composition of a party, more in our interest to get behind a particular piece of policy?
These are decisions that now can only be made case by case, race by race. The days of the class action are over.