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Carter and 'the women's vote'

By Judith Nies and Jane CurrentJudith Nies is a writer and historian. Jane Current is an editor of Sojourner, a woman's newspaper. / February 27, 1980



"Fraudulently significant" is the phrase a friend of ours applied to President Carter's recently publicized efforts on behalf of women. Those words came to mind when the executive board of the National Organization for Women pledged itself not to support Carter in his bid for reelection regardless of who the opposing candidates may be. The phrase reoccurred after the Iowa caucus.

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Two critical issues were ignored by the press in the euphoria surrounding Carter's caucus victory in Iowa. The first is that one-half of all delegates to the Democratic Party Convention will be women. Second is that Iowa accounts for less than two percent of all Democratic delegates. In the delegate megastates like California, Illinois, and New York NOW's viewpoint might carry a lot more weight.

Although many women viewed NOW's action as impolitic, they agreed with NOW vice-president Jane Wells-Schooley when she said women must hold Carter accountable for his lack of action on behalf of women's rights. The fact remains that, although passage of the ERA was one of Carter's campaign pledges in 1976, not one state has ratified the proposed amendment since Carter took office. According to ERA leaders, he has consistently failed to apply any real pressure in support of the ERA, particularly in the unratified Southern states. Had he done for the ERA in Florida what he did for his own campaign efforts, the ERA would be one state closer to ratification, claim a number of women activists.

After a meeting with the leaders of two dozen women's groups (from which NOW president Eleanor Smeal was abruptly disinvited) last Dec. 14, Iris Mitgang, chair of the National Women's Political Caucus, told the New York Times, ". . . I don't think the ERA was adequately addressed. . . . If Mr. Carter doesn't understand how to use the power of his presidency for ratification I felt he certainly does [understand] how to use the White House for support of his campaign."

Carter's major weakness, as many women see it, is that although he is truly skilled at the business of campaigning, he and his Georgian aides have shown themselves to be only marginally competent in the business of translating campaign promises into governmental reality. They have been further hampered by an inability to understand the intensity with which most grassroots women's organizations view the urgency of ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and its 112-year history to ensure women equal rights under the Constitution. In this particular instance Carter has been unable to rise above regional bias on behalf of national interests of women.

His administrative restrictions on federal funding of abortions for indigent women have been overturned by a federal district court. His efforts in public service jobs and social programs have been explicitly directed at the male-headed nuclear family. And the efforts of Presidential assistant Sarah Weddington to deal with "the women's vote," as it is still quaintly called, do not hold up to close scrutiny. Miss Weddington puts out a bimonthly newsletter called White House News on Women which goes out to women's groups across the country. And she has sent out over 6,000 glossy posters with photographs of President Carter's major women's appointments.

While critics acknowledge the sophistication of the public relations, they point out that the real test of presidential commitment to women in government comes when hard cash changes hands. In Carter's appointments to GS-16 jobs and above (these make up the approximately 3,700 jobs that are presidential appointments), the percentage of women seems about on a par with that of the Nixon administration. Of the 33 appointments listed in the latest White House News on Women, only five were paid jobs; the other 28 were non-paying appointments to advisory boards and commissions.

There will be no Iranians or Russians or Afghanis at the Democratic Party Convention. And prior to the convention if many women agree with the characterization of Carter's efforts on behalf of women as "fraudulently significant" there may be a very different geologic shift taking place in the Democratic Party than the Iowa caucus reflects.