LONG before Kate Chopin wrote ``The Awakening'' at the turn of the century, women were waking to their political and social rights, and their important civilizing influence in domestic and world affairs. That awakening has accelerated in the past 20 years thanks in no small part to the National Organization for Women (NOW). NOW provided the women's movement a popular forum and platform from which to speak on crucial issues of equality and justice.
Political activism in NOW has waned in recent years, after a defeat on the Equal Rights Amendment. But the Supreme Court's Webster decision on abortion may change that - at least NOW president Molly Yard hopes so. What's too bad is the way Ms. Yard and NOW seem to be going about it.
Yard wants to start a third political party. At the NOW convention in Cincinnati recently she said women are ``fed up'' with the Republican and Democratic response to their issues.
The abortion decision can be questioned. But what has NOW, or women, to gain by being defined around single-issue politics? A third party would create splits not only among women, but would further build up a divisive ``we-they'' gender approach in dealing with other groups and issues.
What women are, and the contribution they have yet to make, is too crucial to be lost in exclusionary politics and ideological wars.
A more realistic approach is that of the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC), which met this weekend in St. Paul. NWPC is mainstream and bipartisan. It recognizes the need for women to bring their abilities and critiques to the comings and goings of the larger society. That's where much the women's movement is now.
Increasingly, the women's movement is less formally political, and more ``present'' in all phases of life and work. The problems women still face - the ``feminization of poverty,'' inequities at work, the more subtle forms of sexism, - can't be ignored.
Yet neither can a new consciousness developing among ``third-generation'' feminists. In the '60s the ``feminine mystique'' was broken - women seen as drone's for their husbands, trapped with a frozen smile inside an eternity of Tupperware parties. By the '70s, the movement touted ``androgyny.'' Feminists were claiming equality, but downplaying gender differences. That proved unsatisfactory. As longtime feminist Sheila Tobias put it, ``Many of us came to see something important about nurturing. That if every woman turns into a competitive yuppie banker, society is going to be worse off.''
The new era, still unformed, is marked by an affirming of ``female virtues'' - maternal care, nurturing, empathy - in a way that is not idealized, but powerfully real.
Women are changing the professions, academics, business. In health care they have led the field in seeing patients as ``whole persons.'' In theology they've demanded that Deity be seen as including both genders - Mother as well as Father.
History has yet to account for the positive influence women are having. Divisiveness won't help. A better concept of woman will. Both women and men need that.