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New GOP women's group aims to narrow Reagan gender gap

By Victoria IrwinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 8, 1984



New York

They consider themselves the flip side of the National Organization for Women. And they are full of statistics, conviction, and enthusiasm. The newly formed National Women's Coalition (NWC) has a specific target: the gender gap and the notion that Ronald Reagan's policies are bad for women.

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Funded by the Republican National Committee and chaired by Betty Heitman, co-chairman of the RNC, the coalition has been recruiting prominent professional women to speak out in favor of President Reagan and his policies.

Heitman, in New York late last month to kick off the Northeast effort on behalf of the President, says that members of the coalition feel very strongly that Mr. Reagan has initiated programs that have had a positive impact on women.

Individuals within the group do not agree with every Reagan stand, but they are united in supporting his economic programs. His policies have given women ''an unprecedented opportunity to better ourselves - to better care for ourselves and our families,'' says Heitman.

Despite being in a traditionally Democratic stronghold here, Heitman says she has had little trouble finding spokeswomen in the Northeast, perhaps because it is a financial center.

''There is an awful lot of understanding of the economy and support for what the President is doing,'' she says.

With her in an interview were Paula D. Hughes, first vice-president and director of Thomson McKinnon Securities Inc., and co-chairwoman of NWC; Kathryn D. Wriston, a lawyer and the wife of Walter Wriston, chairman of Citibank; and Barbara W. Rawls, senior economic consultant for the Sun Company in Philadelphia.

NWC has recruited women with impressive resumes. The 60-plus members include educators, lawyers, businesswomen, civic and political leaders, a musician, and a professional tennis player. The group seems clearly organized to offer a positive image of female Reagan supporters - women who are not politically unsophisticated, uneducated, or on the conservative fringe. None of the women present said they would mind being called a feminist.

The members of NWC throughout the country will be available to speak and debate in support of Ronald Reagan. Paula Hughes was recently on a television program with feminist author Betty Friedan. The group is not donating any money to political campaigns, according to Heitman. But local Republican candidates are encouraged to make use of the spokeswomen in their campaigns.

''In 1980, in every poll we took, the greatest problem (the country faced) without an exception was inflation,'' closely followed by unemployment and interest rates, says Heitman. NWC members argue that Reagan administration policies have dealt very effectively with all three of those issues. And they are fully versed on statistics that back up their claims.

''Consumer confidence is the highest in 18 years,'' says Wriston.

''There are 5 million new jobs since Reagan took office,'' says Hughes. ''And 2.4 million have gone to women. There's been a tremendous increase in women's entrepreneurship. . . . Three hundred thousand have started their own businesses.''

Many women's groups, which NWC says are Democrat-controlled, say that Reagan budget cuts have hurt women. And many social service agencies, city and state government officials, and educators say that cuts from the federal government have hurt their programs, even after fat has been trimmed and the programs are more cost-effective.

''I don't know of any government program that doesn't want more money,'' says Heitman. Barbara Rawls adds: ''And I don't know of any person who wants to pay more taxes.''

Although economic issues are often listed as a reason behind the gender gap, surveys show that the peace issue is an even a greater divider between male and female opinions. Heitman says that the nuclear-freeze issue has ''scared'' some women. But she defends the President's stance on military issues.

''The President wants peace as much as anyone,'' she says. ''I think women want a strong military.'' She refers to the gender gap that appeared over the issue of the United States invasion of Grenada. Nearly 20 percent more men than women approved of the decision. ''But 58 percent of the women still favored the action,'' says Heitman. ''That would win an election any day.''

Do NWC members worry that the President is seen as insensitive or old-fashioned in his attitude toward women? When asked about the incident last summer where Reagan said that men would still be ''in skin suits'' if it weren't for women, Hughes noted that the news media did not report the ''massive applause'' from the group of women business leaders who were attending the conference where the President made the remark.

Heitman says she hopes the NWC will live on after the election, perhaps as an advisory group to the Republican Party and elected officials, who could benefit from the ''collective knowledge'' contained in the group. ''We'd like to keep these women speaking out,'' she adds.