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Numbers Growing : The Status of Commissions for Women

Times Staff Writer

The women’s movement in America is “alive and well and healthy--and poor.”

That’s the assessment of Connie Woodruff, president of the National Assn. of Commissions for Women, which ended its 16th annual meeting Saturday at the Pasadena Hilton. More than 200 delegates attended.

Woodruff also noted that new commissions are blossoming in a somewhat surprising area: the nation’s small towns. She spoke during an interview after the keynote address by Fay Kanin, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Foundation, who discussed progress women have made and the need to continue it.

Responding to a remark by Dorothy Jonas, chairperson of the California Commission on the Status of Women, that she noticed a new vitality in the women’s movement, Woodruff, whose national organization includes 149 state and local commissions, said that applied as well to the national scene.

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“It has been a ‘bad’ year and we have added 15 new commissions,” Woodruff, who represents New Jersey, said. “The movement is growing locally, in the small towns where women have discovered that the only way they can do anything is to form a unified front.

“We hear talk about the farmers and their problems. Women are finding out that that means the male, masculine farmer and his crop, not the farmers’ wives, not the farmers’ children.”

Author-producer Fay Kanin, who served four one-year terms (the maximum permitted) as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences--"the Oscars,” as she explains it--saluted her audience as “a very extraordinary group of women” and spoke of the progress women have made in a relatively short span of time.

“Recently I attended the eighth Women in Film luncheon,” she said. “Ten years ago that event not only would have been not doable, it would have been not thinkable.”

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Kanin told of approaching a producer about her first Broadway play, “Goodbye My Fancy.” He said he liked it, that he had another play by noted authors George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber and that he could do only one production.

“He asked me, ‘What do I choose? Kaufman and Ferber, or a first play by Fay Kanin?’ ” she said. “Naturally, I said, ‘I guess Kaufman and Ferber.’

“Well, it took a year but my husband Michael produced my play and it was a success. The other play closed in a few weeks. One day I saw its producer in the audience at a matinee. He came up to me and said, ‘Why did you have to give me such lousy advice?’ If I were 29 and that was now, I’d say, ‘Do mine.’

“Times have changed, and women have changed. We know there is nothing we can’t aspire to--and that includes the White House. Our jobs can be better, our home lives can be better, our sex lives can be better.”

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In speaking of women’s efforts to make inroads in film and television, Kanin said that one studio executive, when asked why he employed so few women, said, “Women don’t pester me enough.”

‘Learn to Pester’

“We will have to learn to pester,” Kanin said. “Perhaps at your next meeting you will have a seminar called ‘Pestering.’ ”

She encouraged her audience to speak up for films and television that present positive images of women.

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“We must have the pride, the anger, the courage to speak up against oppressive circumstances,” she said. “We are tired of being depicted as the mindless baby dolls, the heart-of-gold prostitutes and that favorite of all males, the nymphomaniacs.

“We can and do fight the battle for content on many fronts. You represent the audience, from whom the profits derive. You have a big, powerful voice. Use it. Please pester.

In an interview later, Kanin said that women have made “enormous” progress: “I don’t think women are ever going to go back. . . . They know they can have a full partnership with men. They do not want to be second-class citizens.”

She praised the practical issues that the Commissions for Women convention addressed.

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“I was really knocked out by the practical issues in the workshops--how to get children well cared for, how to get equitable child support--and collect it--how to speak up about wife-beating, who are your allies,” she said.

“There was a session on the homeless woman. In New York recently I saw homeless men on the streets in great numbers, people who have no place to go. There are a lot of crossovers, issues peculiar to women and issues in which men and women are joined. It is important that we have many mutual goals.”

NACW President Connie Woodruff sat with California’s Dorothy Jonas and Barbara Robinson, chairwoman of the convention planning committee and a member of the Pasadena commission, and explained what she meant in terming some of the commissions as “alive and well and healthy--and poor.”

“Many commissions for women have fallen victim to the hard times of their states,” Woodruff said. “Women are on the lowest rung of the ladder. Their numbers in statehouses are so limited, and they don’t sit on appropriations committees.

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Budgetary Victims

“The latest fatality to the budget ax is Nebraska, where the governor and Legislature eliminated commissions from funding that had been supported. One was the status of women commission; others were Indian affairs, the arts and a severe cutback on the commission on aging. These were not eliminated, but they were not funded.

“In Illinois in 1984 the whole commission on women was wiped out, eliminated as well as not funded. It was part of the last-ditch fight against the equal rights amendment.”

(In California, the State Commission on the Status of Women has faced a move toward reorganization, and its future hinges on Gov. George Deukmejian’s signing a proposed $480,000 budget, Jonas said.)

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Jonas spoke of the period after ERA’s defeat as a time of “re-forming” through which new vigor is developing.

“Women are saying, ‘OK, I will not see the equal rights amendment passed in my lifetime, but it will happen in my daughter’s lifetime,’ ” she said. “There is vitality in the women’s movement. We have made gains in the last year in pension rights, for instance.”

Woodruff said that one of the national association’s priorities is the problem of poverty among women, a problem that some younger women do not recognize.

‘Not Looking Ahead’

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“Younger women are able to get jobs,” she said, “but they are not looking ahead to the fact that at 42 they will be ‘too old’ for a job.

“We also are still working against harassment and discrimination and the label of ‘libber.’ It is especially a big problem in the black community, where men accuse women of taking their jobs, but that often is a matter of ‘two-for,’ of giving a minority woman a job to achieve two affirmative action goals with one employee.”

Robinson said that women have become skillful in the political process.

“The women here are all very astute,” she said. “Our commissions are all only advisory so we have to do a good selling job. We know how to get programs before boards.”

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Jonas had one final bit of reality: “When we get up to the point of making the laws is when they fight us--and when we know we are making inroads,” she said.


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