Washington — On the afternoon of Oct. 24 President Reagan hosted a meeting of Republican members of Congress to discuss pension equity for women and tax credits for child care. That night he sent the Marines and paratroopers to the island nation of Grenada.
These starkly contrasting events, so close in time, underline a problem that has beset the Reagan administration from its beginning. Through budget cuts and an economic recession, despite a dramatic fall in inflation rates, and now through an invasion in the Caribbean, women persist in liking Ronald Reagan less than men do.
Even as the White House is beginning to reach out, by lending support for legislation such as pension reform, Reagan confirmed longstanding concerns among women that he might resort to arms.
''We've now looked at the President in all kinds of situations, and the gender gap is still there,'' says Kathleen A. Frankovic, director of surveys for CBS-News. Polls consistently have shown women's approval of the President lower than men's by 10 to 12 percent.
A survey, taken by CBS and the New York Times a few days after the Grenada invasion and the terrorist bombing of American servicemen in Lebanon, found the gap no bigger than usual - but it was still there. Fifty-four percent of the men said they approved of the President's overall performance, compared with only 43 percent of women.
Richard Wirthlin, President Reagan's pollster, has called the gender gap ''one of the most intriguing, fascinating, and in some cases could be frightening phenomena that exist in the electorate today.'' It is a shorthand term ''for Reagan's problem with women,'' he says.
The pollster traces its origins to the fact that women are more pessimistic about the economy, more concerned about war, and are occasionally turned off by ''stylistic symbolism'' such as the Reagan gaff when he praised women because without them ''us men would still be walking around in skin suits, carrying clubs.'' Issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights run a ''poor fourth'' in the disaffection of women, Mr. Wirthlin says.
Meanwhile, the official line from the administration continues to be that Reagan's problem with women is chiefly one of perception.
''I really don't know why this administration is getting that kind of criticism,'' says Trudi Michelle Morrison, associate director for the White House Office of Public Liaison, referring to charges that Reagan is anti-women. ''The record speaks for itself. I think the criticism comes from those who have not been willing to . . . educate themselves on it.''
A wide range of women's rights groups claim to have watched the administration with microscopes, however. They counter that the White House is systematically weakening enforcement of antidiscrimi-nation laws and cutting federal programs that help women. That President Reagan named the first woman to the United States Supreme Court has done little to patch up the dispute.
A review of the last 21/2 years finds that some of the chief goals of the Reagan presidency are at the heart of the conflict. Reagan's efforts to shrink government, reduce interference with business, and spend less on domestic social services have all collided with the goals of equal rights groups.
The review also found signs that the White House is giving women's issues a slightly higher profile in recent months.
The Reagan record on appointing women
Ironically, the number of women appointed by the administration has been perhaps the most hotly debated gender-gap issue. When questioned about his record on women, Reagan has responded that he has the best hiring record of any president. Outside groups, including the US Civil Rights Commission, have charged that he falls short of the Carter administration in percentage terms.
But even Wirthlin concedes that the dispute could be beside the point.
''I don't believe that appointing women to positions in government necessarily has any impact on the gender gap as such,'' Wirthlin says.
Nonetheless, the battle over numbers has raged on. ''The facts remain that we have done as well, and in most cases better, than any previous'' administration, says White House press officer Anson Franklin. Critics ''can talk about percentages,'' he says. But he adds, ''No one else has appointed a woman to the Supreme Court. No one else has had three women in the Cabinet at the same time.''
Among the skeptical groups, the House civil service subcommittee criticizes the overall Reagan hiring record. The panel, chaired by Rep. Patricia Shroeder (D) of Colorado, found that during the first two years of their administrations, President Reagan hired 819 persons, of whom 8.4 percent were female, while the President Jimmy Carter signed on 763, including 10.9 percent female.
Enforcement of sex-discrimination laws
The Reagan administration has no less vigorously defended its record on civil rights enforcement. But that record has been a constant source of controversy tied to the Reagan effort to pull the federal government out of business.
Few areas illustrate the sharp turn in policy as does the US Labor Department's handling of government contractors. Under an executive order dating back to the Lyndon Johnson era, the federal government forbids companies it hires to discriminate by race or sex.
Almost as soon as President Reagan moved into the White House, the Labor Department began proposing ways to cut back on the red tape and exempt many small contractors from regulations. The new rules set off a furor and have never been officially adopted. However, the proposals signaled a new mood in the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), the watchdog of contractors.
''I think they've been trying to initiate a less confrontational approach,'' says Helene Melzer, spokeswoman for the OFCCP. She confirms that the Carter administration in 1980 filed 53 complaints against corporations for discrimination, and in 1982 the Reagan administration filed five. Another change is a dramatic drop in the amount of back pay awarded victims of discrimination by federal contractors. During fiscal 1980, under the Carter administration, 3,648 women won compensation from federal contractors. During fiscal year 1981, the first complete cycle under the Reagan administration, the number fell to 965 women. And during the first half of 1983, the total was 284.
''I think they're trying a more positive approach, and where possible, trying to negotiate other (remedies) than back pay,'' says the OFCCP spokeswoman. Among these remedies are scholarship funds and other methods to assist groups that have been victims of discrimination. ''I think it's preferable probably to the contractor,'' she says.
The approach has dissatisfied some women's rights specialists. ''The difference is that there is nothing to be lost for employers if they don't have to compensate their employees monetarily,'' maintains Margaret A. Kohn, an attorney with the National Women's Law Center in Washington. ''If you don't have to pay back pay, it makes the continuation of discriminatory practices a no-cost option. Or at least a low-cost option.''
A similar change has occurred at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), chief enforcer of federal laws prohibiting job discrimination on the basis of race, age, or sex. About half its caseload involves sex discrimination. The total number of cases has taken a dive since the arrival of the Reagan administration.
During fiscal year 1981, the commission agreed to take 364 cases. But in 1982 the number dropped to 112. During the fiscal year that ended in September 1983, the caseload was 119.
''The commission is trying to take a lot of steps to stop the decline,'' says an EEOC official, who asked not to be identified with criticism of the first two years of the administration. The official confirmed that in the last two years the EEOC had been rejecting half the cases presented to it from field offices, but that now the commission is agreeing to take 75 percent.
David L. Slate, the new general counsel for the EEOC, conceded problems with the commission during a speech last month to a legal group in Dallas. He blamed the decline in caseload on a ''rapid charge system'' that put priority on speedily closing cases.
''The trade-off for expeditious settlements has been that in too many instances the underlying discriminatory policies or practices which gave rise to the charge have gone unchallenged,'' said Mr. Slate, who vowed to ''create the most effective litigation program possible.''
Some critics have given the Reagan administration begrudging praise for initiating the first suits to enforce a new law on pregnancy rights.
But, says Maureen T. Thornton, director of the litigaton department of the League of Women Voters Education Fund, ''We really believe there's a major policy reversal with respect to civil rights and sex discrimination.''
A persistent charge, made by the US Civil Rights Commission and women's groups, is that the Reagan administration is attempting to ''narrow'' the scope of equal-rights laws. The dispute comes to head in a case involving Grove City College, which will be argued before the Supreme Court Nov. 29.
The small Pennsylvania school refuses to comply with a federal law against gender discrimination because it claims it receives no federal money, although some of its students receive student aid.
The Reagan administration argues that the college must follow federal laws against sex discrimination, but only in its financial aid program, which is directly affected by federal money. Women's groups counter that the federal funds put the entire school under the law's provisions.
''Congress surely did not intend,'' says a brief filed by the National Women's Law Center, that a student ''could go from one course to another, from the cafeteria to the study hall, from physical education to French class, and be subjected to discrimination in some programs but not others, depending upon whether the program 'directly' receives federal funds.''
Reagan officials argue that only programs receiving direct funding must comply with the law and that the courts, including the Supreme Court, has already expressed that view. The issue should be resolved next year when the high court announces its decision on the Grove City case.
In its push to pass the Reagan economic program during 1981, the administration has stepped on some female toes, especially in its domestic spending cuts.
''Many women were not directly harmed by the budget cuts but perceived that they might be or that people they know might be,'' says Pat Reuss, legislative director for the Women's Equity Action League (WEAL). She listed cuts in school lunch programs, in foodstamps, and in welfare benefits, as well as canceling social security benefits to students over age 16, half of whom live with widowed mothers.
Despite the economic upturn, polls have found women more pessimistic than men about financial security.
''We feel that all sectors of the country have benefited by our economic policies,'' says White House press officer Franklin. ''Cutting down inflation has benefited women as much as men.''
So far the White House can claim credit for few specific advancements for women in legislation, except for tax credits for day care (which the administration did not at first support) and individual retirement accounts for spouses.
But in recent months the Reagan administration has moved to embrace some of the economic equity proposals now on Capitol Hill, including a bill to boost collection of delinquent child-support payments from parents, pension reform to protect women, and expanding child-care tax credits.
''We've had a good working relationship,'' says Rep. Olympia J. Snowe of dealings with the White House on women's issues. The moderate Republican from Maine says of support for bills, ''It's just been a long time coming.'' She notes that White House objections to the costs of tax credits for dependent care and retirement accounts for homemakers seemed to evaporate recently.