The women's movement is beginning to emerge from the shell shock of last year's election with renewed determination and a greater sense of the realities of American politics.
That was the overwhelming message to emerge from the National Women's Political Caucus biennial convention, which ended Sunday.
Many of the 2,000 women attending the four-day convention arrived here discouraged about President Reagan's landslide reelection last fall and the defeat of Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine A. Ferraro. But they spent surprisingly little time bemoaning, or even analyzing, their losses. Instead they concentrated on the nuts and bolts of politics.
They attended series of workshops on campaign strategy, fund raising, lobbying and others titled "the Male Opponent," "Making Headlines," "the Making of a Candidate," "Making Policy, Not Coffee," and "Succeeding as a Woman in the Real World."
In the hallways, one could find vendors peddling buttons expressing the anger that has sometimes marked the women's movement. "Women Are Not Chicks," said one. "We Haven't Come That Far and Don't Call Me Baby," another proclaimed.
But the convention was largely devoid of bombastic rhetoric. The only strongly emotional moments of the four days greeted the appearence of feminist heroines -- Ferraro, writer and editor Gloria Steinem, astronaut Sally K. Ride and singer Helen Reddy.
Speakers reaffirmed support for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and support for legalized abortion. But they appeared reluctant to break much new ground. Delegates, for example, voted down a resolution that would have made arms control and cutting military spending litmus tests for caucus endorsements, arguing that this would hamstring women candidates in conservative districts.
"I am struck by the extent these women are focused, pragmatic and serious. No one is preaching here," said Ann Lewis, executive director of Americans for Democratic Action. "They are saying, 'Tell us what the rules are; tell us what the process is, because we want to win.' "
Another sign of change came during a roast of departing caucus chair Kathy Wilson. "This woman is so tough that when she burned her bra she kept it on," said Democratic media consultant Robert Squier.
A few years ago Squier would have been booed out of town for saying that at a feminist gathering. This time, hundreds of women responded with loud laughter.
Among those attending the convention were women members of Congress, city councils, state legislatures and other state offices, as well as defeated candidates for the U.S. House and Senate.
Fifty-two percent of caucus members are over age 44; a quarter of them earn more than $50,000 annually, and half hold post-graduate degrees, according to the organization.
Statistics gathered by the caucus indicate that the number of women holding lower offices has increased dramatically, but that women have had trouble advancing to higher office.
Women occupy 15 percent of the seats in state legislatures, up from 5 percent in 1971. They hold 9 percent of the mayors' offices in cities with populations above 30,000, up from 1 percent in 1971. Yet only 25 out of 535 members of Congress are women, up from 15 in 1971.
"Women's campaigns have been losing, when on face value they should be winning handily," said Republican political consultant Paul Wilson. "It is true that women voters tend to support women candidates. Yet despite this perceived advantage, many women are not winning . . . . Something is going wrong." Several explanations were offered. Some suggested that women have been lured into hopeless races, or are unable to raise moneyfor effective campaigns.
William Hamilton, a Democratic pollster, said his data indicates that 15 percent of voters, most of them older men, have a bias against women candidates. John Deardourff, a Republican consultant, suggested that women candidates make a mistake in talking about issues such as abortion and the ERA. "Don't assume the issues you're most interested in as feminists are going to get you votes," he told the gathering.
Patrick Caddell, a Democratic pollster, offered another piece of advice: "Surprise, surprise, surprise. Attack, attack, attack."
Jill Buckley, a Democratic consultant, said male candidates she has worked with don't know how to deal with attacks from women opponents. "Get them off guard. Make them lose their temper," she advised.