THE contest was billed as one between the grass-roots candidate, favoring action on the local scene, and the national-issues candidate. The national-issues candidate won. And so under the leadership of Molly Yard, the new president of the National Organization for Women, NOW will presumably be campaigning once again for the Equal Rights Amendment, opposing the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, and pushing hard for Patricia Schroeder for president. NOW can also be expected to be on the march, literally - taking to the streets for high-visibility protest demonstrations.
For many people, however, the main women's rights issues are things like day care, access to job training, better legal enforcement of child-support orders. Part of political savvy is knowing when it is time to fight a particular battle, and when it is not. Many in NOW's grass-roots wing question the wisdom of expending precious energy and resources to fight merely symbolic battles.
But are the two approaches mutually exclusive? ``The personal is political'' has long been a truism of the women's movement. The NOW protesters Ms. Yard has promised to mobilize outside the Vatican Embassy in Washington are unlikely to persuade Pope John Paul II to change his views on birth control. But the decisions made in the White House, in Congress, in the courts, do have a way of affecting American women and their families right where they are. The national agenda cannot be given up - however much watering that the grass roots may need.
Meanwhile, the grass-roots successes - by NOW and other women's groups - should not be minimized. ``Feminism'' has, unfortunately, become a politically charged term. The ``feminization of power'' the NOW delegates talked about last week rattled some people, even though what was meant was the need for more women in elective office.
The United States is full of women who say, ``Now I'm not a feminist, but,'' and then go on to explain how they are running for city council, or are going back to school at an institution that didn't admit women 15 years ago, or are starting a business - with a loan from a bank that until recently would have insisted on a husband's co-signature on the note.
The goals of the women's movement are being incorporated into the social and political mainstream. This wouldn't have happened without those pioneers who used to be derided as ``too way out.'' And it wouldn't have happened unless the pioneers' calls for justice had struck a chord across a broad spectrum of society.