Flexing Political Muscle : From Comparable Worth to Reproductive Rights to Child Care--Women's Issues Are Everyone's Issues, Activists at Conference Say

Times Staff Writer

"My daughter is a nurse. She has five years of education. She does not get as much of salary as some custodians. She has no health benefits through her hospital. And she has a bachelor of science degree," an exasperated Sue Mullins said in defense of comparable worth Sunday morning to a crowded workshop of Republican women.

Fighting to keep her composure, her tight throat keeping her anger and hurt in check, she proceeded to spell out how the issues under discussion were indeed Republican issues, their issues: The equal rights amendment was first supported by the Republican Party. And as for talk of economic justice and raising the minimum wage, she said: "Walk into a fast-food store, a place where they pay low wages, and see what percentage of the workers are women. If we only have women working at the minimum wage, they are not going to be able to support their families."

Mullins is an Iowa state representative, a farmer from the north central region and a lifelong Republican. She calls herself a moderate.

She supports a "women's agenda" of public policy issues that, in addition to comparable worth, includes passage of the ERA, the right to reproductive freedom, including abortion, access to comprehensive and long-term health care, child care and elder care, job training, pay equity, welfare reform and cuts in military spending to provide a more balanced budget.

The ERA, self-sufficiency and the family notwithstanding, 20 years ago, when the current phase of the women's rights movement was beginning, some of those issues Mullins calls hers were espoused by radical feminists or flaming liberals. Just how far they have moved into the mainstream of either party or the nation is about to be put to the test.

Coalition of 42 Organizations

This past weekend 1,100 politically active women--Republicans, Democrats and independents--gathered at the Des Moines Convention Center for the Women's Agenda Conference, an unprecedented event sponsored by a coalition of 42 national women's organizations with an estimated combined membership of 10 million, dispersed in 15,000 grass-roots groups.

They were a broadly based group spanning all ages, minorities and ethnic groups, but united, as Elizabeth Abramowitz, president of the Black Women's Agenda, urged them to remain, saying "Keep your eye on the prize." (To that end, for example, minority women announced a "women of color leadership council" and adopted a separate, more far-reaching agenda while committing themselves to support the women's agenda as well.) They met, their leaders announced, to ensure that their concerns be included on the political agendas of the presidential candidates and in the campaign debates.

"The candidates cannot continue to roll over and play dead when it comes to women's issues," said Beth Wray, president of the Federation of Business and Professional Women, the main sponsor of the conference. "We're a force to be reckoned with. We matter too much."

History and the numbers are on their side, they said, releasing a study that reports that women, along with blacks, played a decisive role in six Senate races in 1986, that 10 million more women than men are expected to vote in 1988, and that they are voting differently than men.

Like men, they are concerned with economic issues, but not in terms of the national debt and trade deficit. They are voting their pocketbooks, "kitchen table, checkbook issues," as Sarah Harder, president of the 150,000-member American Assn. of University Women, said.

They believe they are not alone.

"The women's agenda has become the country's agenda," Wray said.

On Saturday, five Democratic candidates--former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Illinois Sen. Paul Simon--appeared before the women, made separate statements and responded to questions from panelists.

The Republican candidates, along with the other two Democratic candidates--former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart and Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore--did not accept the invitation. Their absence, most seemed to believe, gave an indication what those candidates thought of women and their issues.

"It's their loss," Irene Natividad, chairwoman of the National Women's Political Caucus, said, echoing the sentiments of many who observed that at least half of the women are still not committed to a candidate, and that at least a third of those present were Republicans. (For example, about 54% of the professional women's federation's 150,000 members are Republican.)

Real Work

Once the candidates had spoken, Sarah Harder told those assembled, "The real work of the conference begins." She dispersed them to workshops geared to figuring out how to convince the candidates, the parties and country that the women's agenda is everyone's.

At the workshop Mullins attended, some experts advised women to cool it on a number of issues. Republican analysts Julie Weeks and Ann Stone had warned that abortion and the ERA were "red flags" to the candidates; David Oman, co-chair of the Iowa party, had counseled, "Don't stress the social issues."

The women did not take kindly to that advice, though the panelists insisted it was pragmatic. The mood, as it had been at an earlier workshop, was of betrayal--a feeling that the party leadership had abandoned them and was now held captive by the fundamentalist right, which, as Patricia Cherry of New Jersey said, had given them "a social agenda that is not the least bit Republican."

Angry With Bush

At another Republican workshop, Judy Bredeweg of Illinois, a member of the Federation of Business and Professional Women and a Will County commissioner up for election to her third term, described her anger to the group.

George Bush has been her candidate since 1980, she said. She walked precincts for him, contributed money and stuck with him even though he had backed off on the ERA, abortion and other concerns of hers. Before coming to Des Moines, she had called Bush headquarters urging him to come. To no avail.

And so, she told the group, she called again from the conference, telling his staff she had scheduled a press conference for her return. She had wanted a photo opportunity with Bush to enhance her reelection effort, she said. Instead she would have to say he had not come.

The incident, she said, was one reason that since 1986 she had been putting her time and money into the women's federation instead of the party.

'I'm a Woman First'

"For the past eight years, the Republican Party has been closed to the issues that concern me as a woman," she said. "I'm a woman first."

The women seemed torn, reluctant to leave the party, counseling each other to hang tough. Bredeweg's time and money may go to the federation, but she will probably support Bush, she said privately, out of political necessity. Mullins will not give up on the party--she will work to reclaim it, she said.

"We allowed it to happen. I see it as my responsibility to help get it back to basic Republicanism."

Nor are they all impressed with the Democrats. Gayle Malich, a Republican and former head of National Women's Political Caucus, appealed to them: "What have Democratic women really gotten? I think they must have whisker burn from all the lip service they get."

At least some Democrats tended to agree.

No Candidate Overwhelmed

No candidate who appeared Saturday brought down the house. Jackson came closest, but many attributed that to his charisma rather than his candidacy.

Billie Heller's candidate had been Colorado Rep. Pat Schroeder, who dropped out last September. Heller, a feminist from Los Angeles active in many women's organizations, said she was leaving feeling a little better.

"I still have not decided, but I could live with a Dukakis/Babbitt or Babbitt/Dukakis ticket."

Heller is convinced many of the Republican women will vote Democratic and were reassured by what they heard from the candidates at the convention.

Convention Considered Closed

"I think the Democratic women were much happier than the Republican women. I didn't hear any of them say they were going to the (Democratic) convention, though. I think they see it as a closed process. That's a major gripe they have with the kind of platform, the process. . . . If the Democrats have a problem, it's maybe more with Paul Kirk (chairman of the Democratic party) than the candidates."

"Look," former New York Rep. Bella Abzug said outside the hall, laughing somewhat condescendingly at the lot of them, "these are all sincere, well-meaning people. They do not provide the kind of vision and leadership that is needed. We have to make one of them strong. We've got to keep up the pressure."

Republican, Democratic, independent, they seemed committed to giving it a try. In eight primary states, for example, Harder said, members of AAUW, Churchwomen United and the National Council of Negro Women have agreed to get their people out to all the gatherings to raise the issues. Other groups have pledged themselves to voter registration. All have pledged to mobilize their memberships, and a few were describing plans to duplicate the Women's Agenda Conference among the 42 organizations at the state level.

An Economic Slant

Not only are their issues predominantly economic, but it became clear in the closing plenary that they will argue them in economic language. Child care, for example, would cost government and employers money, but in the long run, they say, it would prove cost-effective.

They plan to remind the candidates and the electorate that, in the coming decades, educational opportunities and occupational training will be absolutely essential if the United States is to stay competitive and remain a world leader.

As intended, the conference did not endorse a candidate.

"Our strength is in our diversity," Harder said, observing that the women tended to be "issues loyalists" rather than loyal to a party or candidate.

Certainly the majority left not committed to a candidate and very much committed to the women's agenda. But a significant number seemed torn about the bottom line, about what, after all is said and done, each will do on Election Day.

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