The Nation: What Next for US. Women

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

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If the most emotional issue was abortion, the thorniest was the question of homosexual rights. Many delegates feared that inclusion of a plank calling for the end to discrimination on the basis of sexual preference would discredit the whole national plan in the eyes of the public —and Congress. During the debate, Betty Friedan, who had long argued that endorsing lesbian rights would hurt the women's movement, rose to announce a change of heart: "As someone who has grown up in Middle America and has loved men—perhaps too well—I've had trouble with this issue. But we must help women who are lesbians in their own civil rights."

Dorris Holmes, Georgia delegate and state strategist for ERA, warned that it would be harder to pass the amendment in conservative states if it is associated with the lesbian cause. "Lesbianism has been an albatross on the whole movement since the last century. It is an extra burden we do not need." Nonetheless, the plank was approved by nearly as large a majority as the other resolutions. Lesbians in the galleries roared their approval: "Thank you, sisters!" Pink and yellow balloons were released with the message WE ARE EVERYWHERE. The Mississippi delegation, which included six men, who had been elected along with the women, rose together, turned their backs on the podium and bowed their heads as if in prayer.

While the Houston convention was passing its National Plan of Action, a counterrally across town attracted 11,000 women, men and children into the Astrohall, and 2,000 others had to wait outside. They had arrived from far and near aboard chartered planes and dusty buses. Cheer for cheer, epithet for epithet, the "profamily" gathering easily matched the ardor of its counterpart in the Sam Houston Coliseum, and its rhetoric was substantially greater.

The counterrally voiced the concerns of large numbers of women (and men) who have instinctive and philosophical objections to abortion and homosexuality. Some may agree that homosexuals should not be discriminated against in jobs or housing and still draw the line at the notion that homosexuality is a mere sexual "preference," morally neutral and not damaging to children. Critics see the conference program as leading to the erosion of the family and further blurring of male and female roles in a society whose standards, they believe, have substantially declined. Many of the pro-family supporters are religious fundamentalists whose views derive from a literal reading of the Bible. Others are not so dogmatic, yet they are honestly concerned that what is considered progress for women in certain respects may turn out to be destructive in others. If more women continue to join the work force, if more day care centers are set up for their children, then what happens to a family structure already weakened by the pressures of American life? Surely, they feel, there is some price to be paid for the shift of a woman into a man's world with a full set of her own entitlements.

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