Women’s movement—coming of age or coming apart?

WASHINGTON—Twenty years after it began flexing its political muscle, the women’s movement has reached a critical juncture, where its desire for increasing clout runs head-on into its impulse for ideological purity.

Questions that were barely on the horizon when only a handful of female pioneers occupied seats of power now cannot be avoided. Is the goal of the movement merely to see more women in public office? Or is it designed to move policy on “women’s issues” in a particular direction?

It’s no longer a theoretical question. The number of women in the House of Representatives increased from 28 to 47 in last year’s election. But 11 of those women voted last month to maintain the current ban on federal funding of Medicaid abortions for poor women—a bone in the throat of liberal women’s organizations.

When the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) held its convention July 8-11 in Los Angeles, angry delegates offered a resolution of censure against those women. NWPC president Harriett Woods, the former lieutenant governor of Missouri, was able to head it off, in part by denouncing the male Democratic leadership of the House, which she said had mishandled the representatives herself.

But Woods and other women’s group leaders know the issue will pop up again and again. On the last day of the convention, Woods, a pragmatist in an organization whose activist base is full of uncompromising liberals, told me, “In the long run, if women are ever going to be the majority (in public office), they won’t be women we agree with 100 percent.”

Since its founding two decades ago in Houston, NWPC, has supported only women who back in Equal Rights Amendment, access to child-care and full abortion-rights. But increasingly, the endorsement policy creates problems. Two NWPC-endorsed members of the House, Reps. Jill Long (D.-INd.) and Karen Thurman (D-Fla.), were among the 11 who voted last month with the House majority to keep the ban on Medicare abortions.

The same issue effectively sidelined NWPC in last month’s Texas Senate special election, where Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison’s victory gave the cause of women’s representation its biggest boost so far this year. But because she does not favor unrestricted federal funding of abortions and accepts some state limitations on the procedure, she was turned down by NWPC.

Sally Cone of Greensboro, N.C., a WISH activist and head of NWPC’s Republican task, complained to me that “pro-choice Republicans have a double stigma to overcome. We’re put down within our own party by people who are intolerant of our views and we’re looked down on by our Democratic sisters who have such exacting standards they would impose.”

Woods said she has sympathy for that complaint. While saying that “equal access (to abortion) is critically important to our members,” she added that “I certainly feel ambivalent about the way we make women jump through hoops (for endorsement), who are otherwise just the kind of women we want to see in public office.”

In part, the problem is being solved in the good old American way—through pluralism. New organizations, each with its own standards for endorsing, are being created. But the more these organizations proliferate, the more the “women’s movement” loses its singular identity and becomes merely another set of competing interest groups and PAC’s.

Already, Woods is straining the limits of pragmatism some of her members would impose. “Texas is a classic case,” she said, “where the grassroots of our organization is more ideological than I am. The Texas caucus is one that sometimes still endorses men who agree with our issues,” a policy that Woods argues defeats the basic purpose of helping women gain political power.

But that purpose is no longer as clear as it once was, as the women’s movement struggles with its political coming-of-age problems.