WASHINGTON -- A quarter-century ago, feminist author Betty Friedan scribbled three letters on a napkin at a lunch with about a dozen women at the Washington Hilton.
Those letters would come to stand for all the strides, and all the noise, made by the women's movement in its heyday -- for the marches in the streets, for the bra-burning (even though Ms. Friedan's contemporaries say they recall no burning of bras) and for economic, social and political reforms that women have gained in their struggle for equality.
Today, the National Organization for Women, which celebrates its 25th anniversary with a global conference that begins here this morning, is still seen by many as the force it sought to be. It is the largest women's rights organization in the nation, chief mobilizer for feminists, loudest cheerleader in support of women's rights and, to non-supporters, biggest rabble-rouser.
But other observers, inside and outside the women's movement, wonder whether the time for the militant, vociferous NOW was then.
"NOW is in many ways more on the radical end of the movement than it used to be," said a Democratic consultant. "All movements have to have a left wing, but it's a place where a lot of women are not comfortable and [instead] have moved into electoral politics. They are still a force, but they are not where a lot of us are."
NOW paved the way for many of the women's organizations, such as the National Women's Political Caucus, the Women's Campaign Fund and Emily's List, another fund-raising group for female candidates, that are working exclusively within the political system today and thus are seen as more mainstream and politically influential, several women's leaders say.
"The agenda is shifting to economic issues, the kinds of issues that demand electoral decisions and an outreach not seen as elitist but seen as mainstream," said Harriet Woods, president of the women's caucus, whose goal is getting women elected and appointed to office.
"NOW is clearly more to the left of center than many other groups, but it's enabled the rest of us to appear centrist and get done what needs to get done," said Jane Danowitz, executive director of the Women's Campaign Fund. "They take a lot of the hard knocks."
Even Ms. Friedan, who became NOW's first president, thinks the group's place at the forefront of the women's movement has shifted as the movement has grown and diversified.
"The women's movement is much larger than one organization," said Ms. Friedan, author of "The Feminine Mystique." "NOW was cutting-edge. Today, they're part of a diverse mosaic. It's unclear what direction they're going to take."
Patricia Ireland, NOW's new president, points to the huge turnout at NOW-organized marches and the group's size as evidence that NOW still speaks for the majority of American women. Its membership, which jumped by 9,000 in October following the Clarence Thomas hearings (the monthly average is 2,000 new members) is about 250,000, up from 40,000 15 years ago.
"The vast majority of people in this country, and especially the vast majority of women, support the same issues the feminist movement and NOW in particular supports," Ms. Ireland said.
At the same time, she embraces her organization's position on the edge. "I see our role as troublemaker, as shaking things up, as making people uncomfortable, as raising the issues that are hard for people to talk about," she said.
Ms. Ireland accomplished all those things when she spoke publicly last month about the fact that, although married for 25 years to a man who lives in Miami, she has a female companion in Washington who is "very important" to her.
She has declined to label herself "lesbian" or "bisexual," saying she will discuss how she lives her life, but not her sexuality. Many applauded Ms. Ireland's honesty, but others thought she only fueled perceptions, held by many of the group's critics, that NOW, a champion of gay and lesbian rights, is focused only on that minority.
"This further proves that NOW is a cover-up for the gay and lesbian movement," said Beverly LaHaye, president of the conservative Concerned Women for America.
But Ms. Ireland, 46, considers her personal life irrelevant to NOW's image and effectiveness.
The stereotype of NOW as solely a lesbian organization preceded her presidency, she said. "I'm the ninth president. So far as I know -- and I know some of these women pretty darn well -- they're all real conventional. But the stories have persisted since the organization's founding. . . . I could have come forward and described myself as celibate and people would still have said, 'Oh, they're a bunch of lesbians fighting for abortion rights,' which, of course, just by itself is sort of a contradiction in terms."
More damaging to NOW's image and clout, some think, was its decision last year to form a third political party, a point of much debate even within the organization.
"I think it's suicidal," said Norine Connell, a former NOW state president in New York.