Women's rights advocates shift aim: to economic goals

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Although many women's rights advocates see a dark cloud hanging over their cause with the arrival of new, more conservative politicians in the nation's capital, women are serving notice that they have not yet given up the fight.

"When the going gets tough, we've got to get together," former conresswoman Patsy Mink, president of Americans for Democratic Action, told a cheering crowd of almost 3,000 feminists who converged on Capitol Hill Feb. 4 to remind Congress that they are still around.

Women in Congress, meanwhile, are taking pains to turn the focus of the movement away from explosive issues like abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment and toward economic goals.

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"Women's issues are basically economic issues," says Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado, who co-chairs the Congresswoman's Caucus. She concedes that the outlook is dark, but she adds that while President Reagan opposes the Equal Rights Amendment, he has promised to back equal rights.

The 19-member Congresswoman's Caucus is planning to test that promise by putting together a bundle of new legislation for the House of Representatives. For the first time ever, the caucus has a package of bills ready for the start of a congressional session. They cover such bread-and-butter issues as pensions , equal pay, help for displaced homemakers, and tax credits for volunteers.

A bipartisan group, the women in Congress have been sharply divided on many issues. But they do agree on economic equity, says Representative Schroeder.

Probably the most wide-reaching reform would be an overhaul of the social security system, which has been proposed by Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D) of Ohio. "It affects 95 percent of the population," she says, explaining that the current social security program is patently unfair to women -- and that federal officials and candidate Reagan have openly admitted that fact.

Take "the example of my mother," says Congresswoman Oakar. Her mother, a fulltime homemaker with five children, was only 52 when she was widowed -- too young to collext any social security. In such cases, wives who have been homemakers face "not only the shock of someone dying" but also the loss of their financial support, she says.

She proposes giving such spouses temporary aid to bridge over the first four months.

Women living on social security are the "poorest of the poor" says the Ohio congresswoman, pointing out that they receive an average of only $2,900 a year, compared with $5,500 for men. Homemakers are cut out of benefits altogether if they divorce before 10 years to marriage, and two-career couples pay more for fewer social security benefits than do one-career families.

In its effort to readjust the economic balance for women, the caucus is finding support from an unexpected corner.

Three Republican senators are preparing a group of "women's economic equity" bills, the first such package to come before the Senate. Proposed by Sen. David Durenberger of Minnesota and Sens. Marck Hatfield and Bob Packwood, both of Oregon, the legislation would guarantee a share of military and civil service pensions to divorced spouses, would reform pension policies, and would prohibit discrimination in insurance.

Despite the spate of proposed laws, some women are sounding an alarm that President Reagan's budget ax will fall hardest on the female half of the population. Cuts in social security could mean that some women "will choose either heat or food," charges Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organizati on for Women during Women's Rights Day on Capitol Hill.

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