“I’m Not a Feminist but...” : Can the Women’s Movement March Into the Mainstream?

<i> Nina J. Easton is a staff writer with this magazine. Times researcher Joyce Sherwood contributed to this story</i>

SCENE 1: DOWNTOWN CLEVELAND -- Sharon Kinsella, dark hair cropped short, dressed in black from shoulder to toe, is hunched over in a chair, telephone jammed in her ear. “OK, let me ask you a couple of questions. Did he touch you?” As the Midwestern secretary on the line answers, smoke from Kinsella’s cigarette coils sleepily upward. “Did this happen in front of anyone?”

Kinsella’s phone, a mainstay of the help hot line run by the office workers’ group 9to5, still hasn’t stopped ringing since University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas surfaced in October. Kinsella has always preached a personal-is-political message. Only these days, she’s finding a more receptive audience. “OK, so at this point you have an internal complaint filed. Now, you have to keep something in mind when you’re dealing with internal structures. Remember who’s signing your paycheck.”

SCENE 2: CORONADO ISLAND -- Nine hundred women--400 of them state legislators from both major political parties--have just sat down to dinner inside the Grand Hall of the Hotel Del Coronado when Anita Hill arrives. The applause builds to a rock-concert roar. One by one, women hike up their skirts and step, in their sensible pumps, onto their seats. By now, they’ve shed every ounce of dignity. They’re waving pink napkins in the air. Some are chanting, “An-i-i-i - ta, An - i-i-i-ta!” Women reach across one another to shake her hand, even just to touch her. “We can’t serve dinner at this end of the room,” pleads Ruth B. Mandel, director of Rutgers University’s Center for the American Woman and Politics, host of this quadrennial conference on women in politics. “Please go back to your tables.”


Hill delivers a scholarly but colorful speech on the “beast” of sexual harassment. She should have prepared for a revival meeting. The women clink their glasses and pound the tables. They pick apart the centerpieces, throwing orchids and mums at the podium. As Hill brings her talk to a close, people are shouting, “Run, Anita, run!”

SCENE 3: WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In the Senate caucus room, where days earlier Clarence Thomas’ life was paraded before the nation, a female elite of 300 are gathered for lunch. This is the International Women’s Forum, a prominent group of executives, scientists and political leaders known for strict decorum and cautious, nonpartisan politics. When Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), the group’s noontime speaker, enters the room, he is greeted with hisses. And when he complains that he and his colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee were “portrayed as totally insensitive asses” during the Thomas hearings, the response is even less polite: The group explodes into applause, and some women pound the tables. Later, when the group breaks up, there is much debate over whether they had been too rude to the senator.

ALL OF THESE SCENES ARE NOTABLE FOR one fact: These are women firmly planted in the mainstream of American politics. While some women represented by these groups readily call themselves “feminists,” many others recoil from the label. Kinsella knows those women firsthand. “A lot of times, callers to the hot line start out by saying, ‘I’m not a women’s libber, I’m a people’s libber, but . . . ‘ “ she says.

Few social movements can claim to have so radically, and rapidly, transformed a culture as feminism has America. Aided by an economy that made the two-earner household a prerequisite for the American Dream, the women’s movement continues to boast strong public support for its central tenet that women are not second-class citizens--at the office or at home. But ask women if they consider themselves feminists, and most will say no. For despite a raising of our collective consciousness that made Ms. a courtesy title and put child care on the national agenda, most Americans still view organized feminism with distrust. Substitute the term “feminism” for “women’s movement” in public-opinion polls and support plummets. To many, the term feminist still evokes images of hairy-legged, humorless extremists who view men as the enemy. In an effort to combat those stereotypes, many feminist leaders have taken aim--at conservatives, at the media, at political leaders, at almost everyone but themselves. By lashing out, they have managed to underscore the militant image that alienated so many Middle American women in the first place.

The Hill-Thomas episode was one of those rare moments when it seemed possible to rekindle a movement that could speak for a broad spectrum of women--not just activists. Although polls showed that the majority of women--like men--ended up supporting Thomas, Hill’s treatment at the hands of the all-male Judiciary Committee visibly re-energized a segment of women not normally found on the recruitment rolls of feminist groups.

The breadth of the reaction highlighted a year in which the nation’s attention was riveted on women’s issues. If anyone in America didn’t already understand the nuances of sexual harassment, most learned enough after three days of live TV hearings to steadfastly take sides in the soap opera of Hill versus Thomas. For anyone who never heard of date rape, the trial of William Kennedy Smith, who was eventually acquitted, provided a televised textbook lesson. And with the Supreme Court on the verge of overturning Roe vs. Wade, abortion is back in the media spotlight.

Taken together, the anger aroused by these events has given feminists their best chance to regain ground lost during the 1980s, to broaden their following and expand a stagnant financial base. Bolstered by opinion polls, feminist leaders predict that 1992 will be the year of the woman candidate (see story, Page 16). They also expect increased support for legislative battles over workplace issues. And one gain is already locked up: Last year’s events were a financial boon to established feminist groups. Direct-mail contributions have swelled by 30% to 50% in the months since the Thomas hearings, despite the recession. As any savvy political consultant well knows, popular rage is the fodder of the most lucrative membership drives. And as 1992 opens, women are angry.

For feminist groups, however, staking out a permanent place at the center of American politics is going to take more than direct-mail campaigns. Almost 30 years ago, Betty Friedan’s landmark book, “The Feminine Mystique,” spoke to women like a next-door neighbor telling it like it is over morning coffee. By the mid-’80s, however, feminist leaders had lost much of that intimate connection--even while American women were enjoying the better jobs and higher pay feminists had fought for.

Membership in groups such as the National Organization for Women waned, bouncing back a few years later when the Supreme Court began chipping away at abortion rights. There had always been questions about whether a movement led by white, college-educated women could represent the interests of the Latina waitress from Arizona, the black textile worker from South Carolina or the white secretary from Ohio. (America’s high-income women are three times more likely to call themselves feminists than the country’s lowest earners.) But even natural allies--professionals who poured into the workplace and maybe even kept their own names when they got married--seemed to be turning off to feminist groups.

Appealing to the country’s middle ground is going to take a more accommodating, pragmatic brand of feminism--one that helps women muddle through the daily conflicts of work and family, not one that constructs “politically correct” road maps of how women should live their lives. Feminists don’t build a base with the mainstream by picketing beauty pageants (NOW), criticizing manufacturers of sexy lingerie (author Susan Faludi in feminism’s latest Bible, “Backlash”), suing to stop the creation of all-male inner-city schools (NOW again) or implying that staying at home with children is demeaning (the Wellesley College students protesting Barbara Bush’s commencement appearance in 1990 because she was a homemaker).

Organized feminism’s sometimes overweening emphasis on lesbian issues is also troubling for Middle America. Traditionalists, of course, object on religious or social grounds. But plenty of women who don’t consider themselves homophobic worry that the concerns of a small minority are dominating a movement that professes to represent the majority.

But when feminist leaders talk about child care, family leave, job discrimination (from sexual harassment to unequal pay), the women in what former Savvy magazine Editor Wendy Crisp calls “that great supermarket middle” respond with majority support. Within the family, feminists can’t force men to do more of the housekeeping, but they can--and have--pressed for legislation to improve the collection of child-support payments. The new activist “is not someone who says we need a revolution, we need to take over political power,” says Washington public-affairs consultant Joanne Symons. “Rather, they’re saying, ‘I’m trying to make a living, and now it looks like I need political power to do that.’ ”

Symons is part of a growing chorus of women who contend that legal equality does not make women the same as men. Women bear children; for the most part they raise children. Plugging women into institutions designed for and by men--without changing the institutional cultures--can be a recipe for failure. Moreover, if we’re to believe a growing body of biological and psychological scholarship, women behave differently from men. “It just doesn’t connect with people’s reality to say that women and men are the same,” says Symons.

But downplaying gender differences is precisely what many leading feminists have done for three decades. That’s largely because “differences” historically were the legal excuse for discrimination--whether in job legislation or divorce laws. But the sameness question continues to dog the feminist movement. While the proposed Equal Rights Amendment drew broad public support for its economic benefits, it also enabled opponents to conjure up disquieting images of mothers in combat and boys joining the Girl Scouts.

That’s not the only quandary facing the movement. Abortion topped the feminist agenda in the 1980s, largely out of a concern that the Supreme Court would enable states to intrude into what most Americans agree is an intensely personal decision. But now some feminist leaders acknowledge that the choice issue has overshadowed others that are equally important. “We’ve been so stuck in only the reproductive-rights movement,” says Marie C. Wilson, executive director of the New York-based Ms. Foundation for Women. Some leaders say feminists need to find ways to accommodate the needs of women who choose to have children, as well as those who don’t. Feminism’s most immediate obstacle is its public image. The women’s movement continues to suffer from a “perception that it is more elitist, more liberal and more upper-class than the mainstream,” notes Republican pollster Linda DiVall. An October, 1991, Gallup poll found that only about a third of women were willing to accept the “feminist” label. The movement suffers particularly among younger women. One recent poll, conducted by R. H. Bruskin for Whittle Communications, found that only 16% of college women “definitely” considered themselves feminists. And Karlyn H. Keene, a public-opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said she was surprised at the large numbers of young women who used such terms as “man-hater” or “lesbian” when asked to define feminism. Throughout the last decade, feminist organizations were criticized for failing to reach out to young women. Indeed, some friendly critics contend that feminism has faltered because when the old guard began to burn out, there wasn’t enough new blood to replace them. Recently, though, feminist groups such as NOW have made concerted efforts to bring college-age women into the fold. But organizing feminists in the 1990s is more complicated than youth appeal. These days, most women juggling work and family barely have enough time to do the laundry, let alone lick envelopes. “We are isolating ourselves from the women who no longer have leisure time,” says Harriett Woods, president of the National Women’s Political Caucus. There is also the problem of how to unite such a diverse group. Some veteran feminist leaders joke that American women like to divide society into three genders: men, other women and themselves.

And what about selling the feminist case to men--at home, at work and in power? With the salaries of women often the only thing keeping families from falling out of the middle class, it’s in the interest of many men to support higher pay for women and to make the office more accommodating to families. At the same time, however, the nation’s struggling economy makes child care and family leave more difficult legislative fights. And, some say, women may face male colleagues who are wary--even hostile--toward women in the post-Anita Hill era. Those hearings may have added “greater tension” between men and women at work, says Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.). “Already, the economic pie is shrinking. Men are feeling threatened, like they’re losing jobs to women as women become more aggressive in keeping their own place in the work force.”

“I think there’s a fear that feminism alienates women from families and communities,” says Wilson. “I hope we can find a way to address the question, ‘How can you be for women and not against men?’ That’s where we’ve gotten our backs to the wall.”


Eleanor Smeal sits in the restaurant of a Washington hotel where a press conference given by abortion-rights activists has just wrapped. It’s been four years since she stepped down as president of NOW, but her continued influence is palpable--even more so since her Fund for the Feminist Majority received a $10-million grant from Hollywood producer Peg Yorkin in the fall. The money will fund a think tank created to put more women into the centers of financial and political power and to help bring the French abortion pill, RU-486, to the United States. When an aide drops by the table, Smeal whispers that she wants to talk to the activists who appeared at the press conference. They could use a little coaching on their answers.

Smeal bites into her sweet roll as the question of feminism’s image hangs in the air. She fixes a patronizing stare at her interviewer before patiently, flatly, setting the record straight. “Feminism,” she states, “has no liabilities. It’s a guarantee of support. Why do you think we call ourselves Fund for the Feminist Majority?”

Smeal is a key figure in the segment of the feminist Establishment that blames their problems during the 1980s on 1) the Reagan and Bush administrations 2) the rise of the New Right 3) the media. They rely heavily on Faludi’s book to make their case. (This well-researched defense of the women’s movement by a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter pins feminism’s image troubles largely on the media.)

NOW was founded by Friedan in 1966 to work within the political Establishment, and quickly came to be viewed as a more mainstream alternative to the militant groups formed by scores of angry, radical college-age women in consciousness-raising groups. Filing class-action suits, introducing legislation, pressuring federal agencies to enforce the equal-opportunity laws Congress had passed were all high on the group’s original agenda. And as Smeal is quick to point out, NOW has always been at the forefront of such workplace issues as child care, flexible working hours, even homemaker benefits. Smeal, herself a former homemaker from Pittsburgh, was a champion of the proposed “Mothers Bill of Rights,” modeled after the GI Bill of Rights.

NOW was never a stranger to street tactics. But in the late 1970s and 1980s, leaders like Smeal and Molly Yard helped forge strategies that positioned the organization further to the margins--combative and often unwilling to play by the Establishment’s rules. Legislation on such issues as child care that are watered down to pass an increasingly conservative Congress risk losing NOW’s support. Regardless of their support for women’s issues, Democratic candidates who misstep face public rebuke. (Witness the group’s outcry last fall over Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey’s overheard attempt at a joke about fellow Democratic presidential candidate Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. and a pair of lesbians.)

While on paper NOW’s pragmatic support for family-oriented issues strikes a chord with most women, public comments by leaders often sent out a different cue to mainstream America. When Smeal won an upset victory as NOW’s president in 1985, she hugged her husband and children and said with a smile, “Feminists aren’t supposed to do this sort of thing, but why not?” It was a comment that at once played on stereotypes of feminists--and helped reinforce the image.

The conflict between the modern women’s movement and the family isn’t surprising since the movement began as a reaction to the 1950s ideal of the woman who stayed at home, in her husband’s shadow, raising the children. Anger about men and traditional notions of home life were evident in some of the movement’s early slogans: “Women need men like fish need bicycles.” Or, “When God created man, She was only joking.” Historian Ruth Rosen, who is at work on a book about contemporary feminism, says that this kind of anger continued to seep into the rhetoric and symbols of feminism many years later. “The ghost that haunted many women was a housewife wrapped in an apron,” Rosen has written.

In the 1980s, Friedan served as a kind of friendly critic of the movement. She wrote in her 1981 book, “The Second Stage,” that the movement needed to better address women’s roles as wives and mothers--and she criticized leaders for becoming overly concerned with lesbian rights, and for letting anti-male rhetoric dominate their activities. She berated feminist writers Kate Millett and Susan Brownmiller for describing men as “the oppressor” and a “natural predator,” and Shulamith Firestone for calling pregnancy the “temporary deformation of the body for the sake of the species.”

Today, the office doors inside NOW’s headquarters in Washington are plastered with posters that scream “Lesbian Rights” and “Stop Souter or Women Will Die.” Nearly every page of NOW’s internal newspaper, National NOW Times, carries photos of women marching in protest. The language employed in the flyers on lesbian and feminist conferences that litter the lobby’s coffee table is borrowed from combat: “battle,” “victim,” “war against women.”

When NOW’s current president, Patricia Ireland, disclosed in December that she is both married and involved in a lesbian relationship, conservative groups immediately seized on this as evidence that NOW remains out of touch. In an interview later with CBS, Ireland said that lesbian rights would remain at the top of NOW’s agenda. “We have to get that battle over and done with,” she said.

Ireland is a shrewd former commercial lawyer who knows how to play to a broad audience. (In defense of the group’s tactics, she quotes the character Mary Jo from CBS’ “Designing Women”: “I don’t mean to sound strident, but being nice doesn’t cut it anymore.”) She is also a savvy political player, recently devising a strategy to directly pressure corporate opponents of parental-leave legislation through public pickets and personal lobbying. Ireland can be pugnacious. She built her reputation inside NOW with on-the-scene tactics to combat anti-abortion protesters blocking health clinics. “When people are pushing on you, when they are bullying you, you have to stand up to them,” she says. “You don’t win anything by cowering--it only makes them bolder, it only whets their appetite.”

A onetime flight attendant as well as an attorney, Ireland says she knows how to reach a wide constituency. “I’m one of those people who can get up and go to a dressy dinner with the judges from Miami,” says the former Floridian, who heads to the office in a conservative skirt and blazer, no makeup and a simple pageboy haircut. “But then I’ll start talking about lesbian and gay civil rights just to watch them all squirm in their seats.”

It’s that kind of comment from a feminist leader that makes conservative opponents positively gleeful. But liberal political analysts have other reasons to claim a gap with American voters: They point to the organization’s plans to launch a third political party, which awaits approval from NOW’s membership in June. By the same token, many Democratic analysts think their party has gone far enough in promoting the feminist agenda. Brian Lunde, a political consultant who formerly served as executive director of the Democratic National Committee, complains that Democratic candidates spend too much time catering to special-interest groups like NOW during the primaries--”pandermonium season” as he calls it. That damages Democratic candidates in the general election, he argues, “where voters say, ‘I don’t want any special interest in control of my candidate.’ ”

To Smeal, an architect of the plan for a third party, there’s not much choice left. Smeal notes that feminist organizations like NOW have been in the forefront of the effort to make the workplace more responsive to women. But year after year, they’ve watched legislation get watered down. The Family and Medical Leave Act the House passed last fall, for example, would mandate unpaid leave for employees taking time off for a birth, adoption or to care for an ill family member.

“We’d like paid parental leave,” says Smeal, a leader who seems more attuned to the needs of poor working women than to the complaints of corporate managers who can’t break through the “glass ceiling.” NOW’s leaders are also tired of seeing Democrats--allegedly their allies--fail to override presidential vetoes on legislation aiding women and voting to approve Supreme Court nominees who are virtually certain to overturn abortion rights.

Smeal sees the effort to launch a third party as an opportunity to finally teach men in power not to take the support of women for granted. With rat-a-tat-tat assurance, the former political scientist ticks off all the times in American history that third parties played critical roles in close elections.

NOW’s political party, Smeal says, will be “egalitarian. It will have a strong base among minorities. It will address 21st-Century questions like the environment. It will take as a given the feminist agenda. And it will challenge the Democrats. Mightily.”

What will it be called? “I like the word ‘New Party,’ ” she says, staring off into the distance as she relishes the prospect of a new battle.


As a historian, Ruth Rosen is trained to look beyond these momentary battles, beyond crude questions of political strategy and public relations. The UC Davis professor fixes her sights on the horizons of society, and when she does she sees feminism--whether you like the word or not--as a ubiquitous force in this country. “The women’s movement has entered public and private life more deeply (here) than in any other industrial society,” she says.

But she also sees a movement that at times has outstripped America’s capacity to adapt. The country was not--and arguably still may not be--ready for an Equal Rights Amendment, Rosen says. “You can’t have a cultural revolution without society needing pauses,” she says.

Faludi’s book describes the 1980s as a “backlash” against feminism--by the media, by traditionalists, by men who felt threatened by women’s gains. Borrowing Rosen’s prism, however, one could view the decade instead as a time when society had to catch up with changes that in the course of only 20 years turned centuries-old traditions of male-female relationships upside down.

In this context, it’s not surprising that as the feminist movement bolted rapidly and confidently forward, critics from within its ranks began to express uneasiness about its direction. Friedan kicked off much of that self-examination in “The Second Stage.” Author Erica Jong followed five years later with a Vanity Fair magazine commentary chiding feminism for not only being “indifferent to the problems of mothers but downright hostile to children and childbearing.”

In her 1986 book, “A Lesser Life: The Myth of Women’s Liberation in America,” economist Sylvia A. Hewlitt wrote that because of their roles as mothers, women need “more than equality with men” to attain equal earning power. “They need job-protected maternity leave, child care, flextime and specially tailored career ladders.” In last year’s “Prisoners of Men’s Dreams,” Suzanne Gordon argued that feminism veered off course by encouraging women to strive to be equal in a man’s world, rather than changing the masculine marketplace to accommodate life outside of work. Women, she wrote, are confusing equality with male-defined notions of success.

Academic work exploring the differences between the sexes traditionally has invited hostility from the “equal means same” school of feminism. But scholars are increasingly treading into that delicate territory. Spearheading the behavioral debate has been Harvard psychoanalyst Carol Gilligan, who posits that the sexes have different moral voices: Men tend to adhere to such abstract principles as justice and logic, she argues, while women focus more on human relationships, reconciliation of opposing views and considerations of how decisions will affect others. Biologists at schools including UCLA and the University of Chicago are studying brain chemistry to understand why young girls and boys seem to prefer different toys and whether language and math skills are related to gender.

Anthropologists, such as Helen Fisher of New York’s Museum of Natural History, are writing about the ancient antecedents of the war between the sexes. “Men and women weren’t designed to work together,” she contends, adding that in many tribal societies, men went off to hunt, while the women gathered. “They are not accustomed to being together, day in and day out, as peers,” she adds, “so the taboos and rituals haven’t been established.” To Fisher, the gender wars that erupted over the Thomas hearings were predictable.

But many of today’s feminist leaders still have strong notions about what constitutes a “politically correct” point of view. And not much of this thinking--from academics or social critics--fits. Faludi dismisses much of Friedan’s book as “the tantrums of a fallen leader.” She picks apart Hewlitt’s research methods as deserving of coverage by the National Enquirer. Gilligan is faulted for enabling opponents of feminism to appropriate her work for their own ends. Feminists who criticize the movement for overlooking the profound differences between the sexes are chided for churning out “retrograde” fare.

Corporate consultant Felice N. Schwartz was seared by feminists when she wrote in a 1989 Harvard Business Review article that for corporations that don’t recognize the needs of the family, the turnover rate among women managers can be costly. Her suggestion of one track for “career-primary” women and another for women who desire less demanding jobs while they raise their children--dubbed the “mommy track” by the press--was instantly dismissed by feminists as a dangerous form of “retrofeminism.” As flawed and often vaguely conceived as some elements of these debates are--the mommy track does risk becoming another vehicle for job discrimination--they reflect a range of attempts to grapple with a fact that feminism has done its best to ignore: that biology combined with the social role of motherhood makes women different--not inferior, just different.

Most Western European countries address women’s issues in a different way--from the children’s perspective. Policy makers there view child rearing as a public concern; European policies typically are gender-neutral. The result is a network of child-care and parental-leave policies vastly more generous than those of the United States.

Increasingly, many U.S. feminist leaders are talking in terms of bolstering the “family” rather than promoting “women’s rights,” even though the end result may be the same. Like the European models, U.S. legislation such as the Family and Medical Leave Act has been crafted to apply to men and women.

“It doesn’t mean Mom can’t be Mom,” says Judith L. Lichtman, president of the Women’s Legal Defense Fund. “But it anticipates that if Dad wants to be an active parent, he has the fabric of social policy and law that permits him to do so.”

Wishful thinking by feminists? Although many social observers doubt that family roles will substantially change, Lichtman disagrees. “It may be my grandchildren’s children, but it will happen,” she insists. “Unless you come up with a social policy for the future that anticipates men’s involvement in family life, you will now and forever say that women must carry the dual burdens of worker and caretaker.”


Inside the cluttered press gallery of the U.S. Capitol, a whiff of perfume is in the air. Patricia Schroeder, a Democrat representing the 1st District of Colorado in the U.S. House of Representatives, has arrived.

If Smeal represents an older feminism--combative, uncompromising and operating largely outside the traditional political process--Schroeder has emerged as a leader of the new. It’s easy to picture her buying those Anne Klein earrings she’s wearing at the Broadway jewelry counter. While Smeal uses such terms as “feminization of power,” Schroeder talks about making the workplace more “family-friendly.” A member of the House Armed Services and Judiciary committees, she’s also among a cadre of lawmakers in Congress--about two dozen from both parties--who consistently needle the White House and its political coterie on women’s issues. They lobby for child care, they call press conferences when women aren’t included in federal health studies, they introduce family-leave bills.

Schroeder has drawn the scorn of colleagues by bringing her kids (age 2 and 6 when she was initially elected 19 years ago) into the Capitol. “I had my kids on the floor all time,” she says. “I ran a tab with Yellow Cab, and if we were in late they’d come here for dinner. Colleagues would act like they didn’t know who I was, or they’d accuse me of demeaning the job.

“We once had a birthday party here--in the Speaker’s Dining Room. You should have seen me trying to get the clowns through security. And there were grumbles, ‘If Sam Rayburn could see this. . . .’ This is the most unfamily-friendly society I’ve ever seen, and Washington, D.C., is the most unfamily-friendly city in America. You are what you do. You show up with a child anywhere, and they immediately say, ‘What’s this?’ ”

Schroeder doesn’t strike a chord with every woman in America. Her visibility during the Thomas hearings--when she led a group of women lawmakers who stormed over to the Senate to demand a full investigation of Hill’s charges--drew angry letters, as well as plaudits, from constituents. One 57-year-old woman wrote that she was inspired to become an activist--to fight against Schroeder and her allies--as a result of the hearings. “You care for nothing but winning a battle for NOW-type feminists,” the woman wrote. “You care nothing for a man’s reputation, nothing about fairness.”

But Schroeder draws broad support from women, largely because of her knack for relating political issues to everyday life; in 1987 she briefly considered turning that popularity into a bid for the presidency. Schroeder frequently kicks off speaking engagements before corporate employees with this question: “How many of you would rather call work and say your car broke down than admit that your child or spouse is sick?” When most hands go up, Schroeder drives home her point: “Isn’t it interesting that we will tolerate a technology-caring role, but not a human-caring role?” Then she launches into her lobbying campaign for the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Feminist groups are among Schroeder’s key allies, and she is gentle in criticizing them. “I think the national organizations have been great ceiling punchers, rather than following up and leveling the playing field,” she says. “They’ve done a good job of opening doors. But we don’t have a group organized around the fact that ‘equal’ does not mean ‘same.’ Now that you have women in the workplace, why are we not recognizing their care-giver role the way we do in every other society? Women still have to be the care givers, and now the breadwinners too. I think the women’s movement needs to step up and speak to that more directly.”

In fact, lawmakers such as Schroeder who push women’s legislation on Capitol Hill are increasingly relying on supporters outside the feminist Establishment. They also look to the professional groups and unions that unite like-minded women inside the workplace. The old activist adage that “the personal is political” has become a mantra of these organizations, where it might better be coined as “the politics of business is politics.”

“The women’s movement is weak from not having national leadership that people can identify with,” says Karen Nussbaum, executive director of the Cleveland-based 9to5, which lobbies on behalf of its 15,000 members. “But our experience is that it is thriving in what some may see as the backwaters.”

9to5 has been on the front lines of legislative battles over sexual harassment, child care and family leave for nearly two decades--and its reputation with lawmakers as a grass-roots organization is sterling. The soft-spoken Nussbaum says she moved the headquarters from Boston to Cleveland in the 1970s so the leadership wouldn’t lose touch with Middle America. Nussbaum well knows the everyday stress of being a working mother. With child care always in short supply, she often has to drag her three kids with her to the office or to interviews with local TV stations, where she parks them in the lobby. She has an equally personal explanation for why Congress is suddenly more interested in women’s issues: “The wives and daughters--but especially daughters--of policy makers went to work and came back and said, ‘Daddy, they won’t give me my job back after I had my baby.’ ”

Increasingly, 9to5 is finding company in its legislative battles. Take the New York-based National Assn. for Female Executives, a career women’s group that--with more than 250,000 members--is one of the largest women’s organizations in the country. The typical member is 36 years old and makes $35,000 as an assistant branch manager at a Midwestern bank--and, until now, she’s been mainly concerned with professional networking. Last summer, though, the group decided to start lobbying on public policy debates of interest to women.

NAFE National Director Wendy Crisp, the ex-Savvy editor, predicts that groups such as hers will form the backbone of a stronger women’s movement in the 1990s that “will be more focused on words like community. That will be the code word for the women’s movement.” But, she says, she and her members don’t connect with established feminist groups. “My credentials aren’t pure enough,” says Crisp, who adds with a hint of sarcasm: “We like to talk about makeup and shopping.”

Dozens of other women’s organizations have become veterans on Capitol Hill--the American Nurses Assn., the American Medical Women’s Assn., the National Federation of Business and Professional Women, the American Assn. of University Women, and on and on. In the 1990s, these professional groups--as much as feminist organizations--are defining the terms of the debate in Washington. “These niche groups have a lot of credibility” among members of Congress, says Andrea Camp, a Schroeder aide.

Leaders of these groups report that their members were further politicized by the Thomas hearings. The effect seems to have spread. In Denver, entrepreneur Carol B. Green is organizing Republican women in her living room. She was furious at Hill’s treatment by the Senate committee and even more angered at the “condescending tone” taken by the male senators who addressed the International Women’s Forum luncheon in Washington. There, she stood up and announced that in making her political decisions, she would no longer be a Republican first, a woman second.

At the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, professors who persuaded 1,600 African-American women to sign a $50,000 New York Times advertisement in support of Hill have turned that list of names into an information and political network. In Los Angeles, public-relations consultant Hope Boonshaft-Lewis is now hatching plans for an economic boycott of Utah, home state of Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, one of Hill’s chief adversaries during the hearings. “We’ve been trying so hard to not to cross the line and get called ‘bitch,’ ” says Boonshaft-Lewis. “We were willing to play within the system. But women are starting to say, ‘This isn’t working.’ ”

Schroeder’s messages that “equal does not mean same” and that “family-friendly” is the watchword of the ‘90s find a receptive audience among these new feminists. “I’ve been talking to the nurses, the women in medicine, to women’s groups till I’m ready to fall on my ear,” she says with feigned exhaustion, before she runs off across the Capitol lawn one November morning to lobby a colleague for his vote on the Family and Medical Leave Act.

A week later, the bill passes--but without enough votes to override a certain presidential veto. Schroeder and her allies, however, will try again. And one day they will probably succeed. The Thomas hearings proved that there are points of unity among millions of women, that they can be moved to action, that their widespread anger can be channeled productively: Witness the financial boon to women candidates. The same could happen in legislative battles. Reaction to the Thomas hearings gave feminist groups a new sense of their potential--and some, like the Ms. Foundation, are exploring ways to reach out to more women.

The future shimmers with opportunity. But now, with more doors open to women, feminism in the ‘90s must grapple with a new set of issues focusing as much on gender differences as legal equality. How much can family roles be expected to change? Are women ready to give up the historical notion of what it means to be Mom? And if women continue to raise the children--working fewer hours, forgoing promotions--can they ever break through the glass ceiling?

And what about the children? Are they getting the parental attention they need in this time-starved society? Should activists focus on enabling parents to work less, or women to compete more? Should companies be expected to compensate employees--men or women--who spend less time at work and more with their families the same as those who put in longer hours?

There aren’t easy answers to any of these questions. Feminism’s greatest failure was pretending there were.