In the world of political science, you might call it the Big Chill Theory. When the climate is less than warm for social change, the activists go into hibernation.
There is nothing wrong with this impulse. The problem is that when you get up, it may not be 1986. It may be 1950 all over again.
Ever since Reagan came into power, leaning heavily to the right, the leaders in the women's movement have tried to figure out a way to deal with the change in the weather pattern and the tendency of many to head for the caves. Like those in the civil- rights and environment movements, they have alternated between R & R: retreating and regrouping.
The issue of energy -- how do you conserve it, spend it, recycle it, find new sources of it -- is at the heart of movement strategy. It was also central to the change of leadership that took place last weekend at the annual convention of the National Organization for Women.
It's been a long time between victories for progressive women. The media have proclaimed this a post- feminist era, and the Reagan administration plans for a pre-feminist era. The Equal Rights Amendment has disappeared from the national agenda, and the fastest-growing place for women is in the ranks of poverty.
At the same time, the largest feminist group, the National Organization for Women, has been through some tough times. It has lost membership and money. By some estimates, NOW rolls have been nearly cut in half in two years to about 140,000 members, and the organization is about $1 million in debt.
Equally troubling, some of the longtime supporters began drifting or dozing off in the post-election doldrums. They may have been hibernating in some pretty fancy caves -- law firms and board rooms -- but they were missing in action.
Some of NOW's troubles have to be borne by the president, Judy Goldsmith. Last weekend, the former English professor who was comfortable playing insider politics was voted out of office. She was replaced by Ellie Smeal, the feisty former president who promised to wake up the organization.
In large measure the vote turned on the differences between these two women. Smeal is a risk-taker, a savvy political organizer and a woman with a much greater measure of that intangible motivating quality we call leadership. But it also turned on strategy.
Smeal doesn't believe in outwaiting this conservative tide with more modest tactics and goals. "If the climate is going to shift, groups like ours have to make it shift," she says. "This is not the time for behind-the-scenes activity. We can see where low-key has gotten us; people think we've gone away."
The bottom line for an activist (and Smeal is certainly that) is action. She isn't worried abot being seen as confrontational. She doesn't regard confrontation as old-style politics. "The nature of a movement is you are constantly challenging," says the 45- year-old who headed a political consulting firm in Washington. "We are a social change group. Our political clout is the ability to galvanize public opinion. That is the medium of exchange we are dealing with. To galvanize public opinion it's essential to be visible."
So, she plans a most visible future. A fight with the right wing for a state ERA in Vermont in 1986. A 200,000- strong march against Reagan anti- abortion policies next spring. Passage of the Civil Rights Restoration Act. A massive collection of 1 million pro- choice signatures. An organizing campaign on college campuses.
This is, in many ways, a high-risk strategy. If women are not interested in being mobilized, then a march can turn into a ragtag stroll. If they are not hibernating but comatose, then a petition becomes an empty piece of paper. Failure is also very visible -- and absolutely deadly.
But Smeal is convinced that, "These are the best times for organizing, when people really feel threatened. I think that when the opponent is on the move and presents a clear danger, people rally. There is a real desire out there to shift into high gear. I feel if we are successful in shifting gears, it will give other progressive groups the lift to do so."
She is betting that the women's movement is not suffering from malaise but from a lack of leadership. As the buttons at the convention proclaimed: "Ellie's back." She's carrying a booster shot of adrenalin and planning to make some cave calls.