The Nation: What Next for US. Women

Houston produces new alliances and a drive for grass-roots power

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Some were borne to center stage for the first time, including the woman on TIME'S cover, Peggy Kokernot, 25, a Houston physical education teacher and marathon runner. Along with other women athletes, she had been called on to make up for lost time when the symbolic, 2,612-mile torch relay that preceded the conference began to lag so far behind schedule there was fear the convention would outpace its torch. She was then placed in the group that ran the bronze torch into the opening session, and her own ambition says much about why there was a women's convention at all. She wants a woman's marathon at the Olympics, "to let everybody know that women are extremely capable of running 26 miles." But the International Olympic Committee recently turned down a proposal for even a 3,000-meter (roughly two miles) women's race. The distance, presumably, is deemed too exhausting for the "weaker sex."

The women's movement also emerged from Houston with a greater network of sympathizers across the country. Said Nebraska State Legislator Shirley Marsh, a feminist delegate at large from a state where most others were more conservative: "I came home with hundreds of cards, names and addresses from Guam all the way to Maine." Of course, togetherness works both ways. Women who opposed the abortion, ERA and lesbian planks also brought their address books. The conference, said Winkie LeFils, first vice president of the National Council of Catholic Women, "strengthened my communication with other pro-family delegates. I'll be corresponding with all of them this month."

The conference was run with more efficiency and dispatch, more zest and panache than most conventions dominated by men. There was an infectious mood of ebullience that made women open, communicative and tolerant of slights. Never far out of camera range, stalking the podium like some watchful mother bear anxious for her brood, Bella Abzug mellowed considerably for the occasion. She even joked about the Congressman who scoffed that the girls had gone to Houston for boozing and carousing. Abzug's zinging putdown: "I have attended many meetings, but I have never heard any women ask for call boys."

A new-found confidence visibly emerged during the conference; women were suddenly put together with others sharing their views, hopes and anxieties. Alliances were forged for the battles that lie ahead. The women knew that their political skills were on trial, and they passed the test with flying colors. No one could accuse the participants of being any less adroit, canny or Machiavellian than men. Reports TIME Senior Correspondent Ruth Mehrtens Galvin: "What had not been clear was whether women who were eager to improve their lot, but had never been involved in the political process before, could be kept in order long enough even to discuss, let alone vote, on all these issues. Order was achieved by the kind of discipline any male politician would give his eyeteeth to attain."

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