A battle for leadership of the National Organization for Women came to an emotional and bitter end last night with NOW President Judy Goldsmith accusing her rival, Eleanor Smeal, of making "unsupported, irresponsible and spurious allegations."
Voting was delayed into the wee hours of this morning after Goldsmith forces complained that Smeal backers had distributed erroneous sample ballots. Results were expected after daybreak.
Meanwhile, about 60 NOW members marched down Bourbon Street in the historic French Quarter tonight, stopping in front of several striptease joints to chant, "Pronography must go." The march, which wasn't officially sanctioned by NOW, marked the first public display of militancy during the two-day conference.
In a final campaign speech to NOW's annual convention, Goldsmith last night angrily charged Smeal forces with defaming her and NOW, the nation's largest feminist organization.
"You deserve better than hysterial misrepresentations of reality," Goldsmith told 1,800 NOW members. "You deserve better than duplicity, character assassination and the ward-boss political mentality. You deserve better that the charge that NOW has been inactive and invisible."
The outburst was uncharacteristic of Goldsmith and revealed the deep divisions that have developed over the election to the $51,000-a-year job.
Smeal, who led the organization from 1977 to 1982, has based her political comeback on charges that NOW has lost members, money and its militant zeal under Goldsmith.
Following her former ally to the podium, Smeal said, "I believe this organization can stand a healthy, competitive debate on the direction of the women's movement."
Smeal said that if elected she would revive the Equal Rights Amendment issue, sponsor a "200,000-strong" march on Washington in support of legalized abortion and launch a television advertising campaign to confront the political right. "I do believe we can do much more than we are doing," she added. "If you agree with that, vote for me."
The candidates' appearances were accompanied by long floor demonstrations that followed a rather quiet convention day, highlighted by a call for unity.
"After the election war is over, let us not divide. Let us unite together," declared Lois DeBerry, a Tennessee state legislator. " . . . Let us unite for the millions of women around the world." A standing ovation and shouts of approval greeted her plea.
Several dozen protesters picketed the convention headquarters at the Fairmont Hotel. "This is a group of Americans who want to point out that NOW does not represent the majority of women," said Kathleen Benfield, president of New Orleans Right to Life Committee.
The NOW anti-pornography group backs a third candidate for president, Sonia Johnson, whom Goldsmith defeated in 1982.
Sally Ride, who said pressure from NOW helped make her the first female American astronaut in space, was a featured speaker yesterday. In a videotape, Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly, stars of the television show "Cagney and Lacey" thanked NOW for lobbying to keep their show on the air.