The Reagan way against sex discrimination

Blue for a boy and pink for a girl. It's cute for baby booties -- but not for the paper on which the announcements for government job openings are printed. Or so the Justice Department's task force on sex discrimination seemed to feel in noting an instance of such color coding even where bias had supposedly been eliminated. This is one small hint of the challenge to be faced by Ronald Reagan as president in his stated devotion to equal rights through repealing discriminatory federal and state laws while opposing the Equal Rights Amendment. He might begin with that basic document, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 itself, which forbids discrimination in federally assisted programs on the basis of race, color, or national origin -- but not gender.

The final report of Justice's task force -- which has already found thousands of problems in federal law, language, regulation, and enforcement -- should be on Mr. Reagan's desk sometime next year. Meanwhile, he might peruse the recent final recommendations by the presidential advisory committee on women chaired by Lynda Johnson Robb. And there is the Ford Foundation's renewed recognition of the well-known disadvantages faced by women. This week it announced it was more than doubling its annual international comittment to their advancement (from some $4 million to $9 million) in a report that concludes: "Although women have made gains in the last decade, compared with men they are still underpaid and suffer high unemployment, are denied equality in education and training, and face cultural obstacles that limit their full participation in society."

Surely there is no excuse for more than half the American population to remain discriminated against. To be sure, the discrimination task force has found some bias against men. But women have been the big losers. ERA promises to simplify the battle against sex bias by specific reference in the Constitution. Whether or not it is ratified, however, the kind of legal reform espoused by Mr. Reagan must go forward.

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One way he could act promptly would be through an executive order to elimanate remaining bias in the executive branch. There is already a presidential memorandum to that effect, and some improvements have been made. But an executive order would permit persons to bring suit under it.

Some entrenched examples of bias -- even a trivial instance of language referring to privileges for newsboym -- are part of laws requiring congressional change. But, according to the task force's interim report of two years ago, much can be done through revising departmental regulations and practices.

The Department of Agriculture, for example, has moved toward fairness in handling loans by moving away from defining farmers as male and women as farmers' wives.

The department of Defense, throught the efforts of a long-standing advisory committee, has made substantial progress. Yet the task force identifies statutory provisions that cause women to recieve "less training, less command experience and, ultimately, lower retirement benefits which are based primarily upon the highest rank attained."

The criminal code contains discriminatory passages to do with rape and marriage rights for example. Civil rights provisions speak of race, color, religion, national, origin, even previous condition of servititude -- but not sex.

Notorious, of course, are the examples of discrimination in tax and social security laws. The "marriage penalty" requires the "nontraditional" couple of two wage earners to pay more taxes than the two partners would singly. Since the couple's second income is usually the wife's the bias falls heaviest on her. As for social security, the stereotyped assumption of male breadwinner and homemaking wife means, in the task force's words, "inadequate benefits to home-makers whose marriages terminate in divorce and lower benefits to families in which the husband and wife are both in covered employment than it [the system ] provides to families in which only the husband is employed."

The efforts to reform the laws must be accompanied by efforts to enforce the laws that exist. Here is where an instance like the Civil Rights Act comes in again. By adding a ban on sex bias in federally assisted programs it could reduce the confusion caused by varying requirements under other statutes. Such confusion and inefficiency lead to what the task force calls "second class status" among priorities for enforcement.

The litany could continue. But this much may suggest the bold opportunity Mr. Reagan will have when he begins to follow through on repealing discriminatory laws.

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