Washington — What the United States government needs, says one of its newest congresswomen , Barbara Vucanovich (R) of Nevada, is a ''tough grandmother - someone who cares about people.''
A warm, friendly grandmother of 15 with iron gray hair, pearl-studded jewelry , and a dress-for-success look, she hopes to demonstrate to Congress that ''you don't have to be a screamer or an activist to be an effective spokesman for women.'' Mrs. Vucanovich says she brings to Congress the values and posture of a ''traditional woman,'' one who can demonstrate ''a little common sense, a very normal point of view.''
As a congresswoman, the grandmother says she will be looking at all legislation ''with a Nevada eye - there are only four of us in Congress, and we need to look out for our state.''
The state gained a seat in the House with the recent reapportionment, and Mrs. Vucanovich is the first representative from the newly formed Second District. She is also the first female representative from her state, according to an aide - a fact Mrs. Vucanovich says she doesn't understand. ''I don't know why more women don't run. Women put themselves down,'' she says. ''I've met many women who could easily serve in Congress, but it never occurs to them to run.''
Told that many women believe they can't get the financial support they need to run a good campaign, she replies, ''I don't think (feminists) can get money. But I was on a peer level with many in the business community and received amazing support.''
In fact, the congresswoman - who ran her own travel agency for seven years - outspent her opponent 2 to 1, going over the half-million mark on campaign expenses. Much of her money came from the hotel and casino interests of her state, but she also found the women in anti-abortion groups to be ''really helpful, because I am opposed to abortion.''
Her third husband, the vice-president of a Nevada-based company, was also ''very supportive,'' although she says they had to think long and hard about her decision to run. ''We knew there would be times when he couldn't get here (to Washington) and I couldn't get there, and we'd just have to have our marriage by phone,'' she says, a little regretfully, ''but we're going to try it one term and see how it works out.''
Not having a husband around makes some Washington institutions hard to handle , she says. ''He came with me the first week,'' she explains in her makeshift office on Capitol Hill, ''but now that he's gone, I wouldn't think of going to a party without him.''
She is not, however, without friends in Washington: She has a powerful ally in Sen. Paul Laxalt, a fellow Nevada Republican, whose campaigns and district office she ran for 20 years. There, Mrs. Vucanovich learned the ins and outs of dealing with constituents - an area where even her detractors say she excels. ''She's good with people,'' says a reporter who followed her campaign, ''and she can think on her feet talking to them.''
But opponents say the relationship between the senator and representative is one of puppeteer and puppet, rather than experienced and inexperienced politicians. ''The senator backed me 100 percent and said so when asked,'' Mrs. Vucanovich says of the relationship, ''and he opened a lot of doors financially. But he didn't strong-arm anyone, and he's not going to tell me how to vote.''
Her voting should be a matter of undoing rather than creating legislation, she says. ''There are a lot of regulations that frustrate the people in my district,'' she says, which she plans to ''take a look at.''
Asked specifically what legislation, if any, she proposes for women, she replies that ''it's a question of increasing numbers in the middle-level management ranks. A man will help other young men to come up in the business world; women don't always do that.''
Asked if she is thinking of proposing specific ideas for increasing those numbers, she says that she is ''hiring myself, not on the basis of gender, but of competence. Two out of three of my district offices will be headed by women.''
But she does not plan to join the Congresswomen's Caucus, saying that ''a lot of women have backed away from that, because (the caucus has) taken an adversarial role, and been very combative with the administration.''
She is very supportive of the administration, she says, on most issues, ''although James Watt (secretary of the Interior) is saying we should sell off federal lands, and I'm against that. It's going to take a lot of compromise.''
Right now, however, the tough grandmother is more interested in condominiums than compromise. She is setting up a small apartment for herself nearby, and choosing ''what few things I need to bring east.'' With a few sticks of furniture, and the ability to care for people, she says, she should be all set.