Washington — When Susan Reynolds, a young mother from Grand Rapids, Mich., first became interested in nuclear issues, her concern was intensely personal: the future lives of her three preschool children. ``I started thinking about what kind of world we'll have in 25 years,'' she recalls. ``And I wondered, `What are our children going to criticize our generation for?' I decided I didn't want to hear them say, `How did you let this situation get to this point?' ''
As Mrs. Reynolds's concern grew, so did her activism -- talking to friends, joining a peace group. Recently it also led her to Washington, where she joined more than 200 women from 32 states for the fourth annual Women's Leadership Conference on defense issues, sponsored by the Committee for National Security.
With her fledgling credentials (``I'm new to the issue and new to politics''), Mrs. Reynolds typifies a growing number of women who are putting the global arms race on their personal agendas.
``My children were the impetus, but I'm not in the issue just because of my kids,'' she explained between meetings at George Washington University here. ``That got me going, and now I want to contribute something. I want to look back and say, `I helped in my little corner of the world.' It's a personal thing and a global thing.''
For more seasoned activists, the presence here of women like Mrs. Reynolds serves as an important impetus to the peace movement.
``I sense an urgency among women that I find very heartening,'' said Jean Lloyd-Jones of Iowa City, Iowa, a representative in the state legislature and an activist in peace and disarmament groups for 30 years.
``I'm finding people at this conference who were never interested in peace until the last couple of years,'' she continued. ``The only way they can keep their panic in control is to do some kind of constructive work.''
Mrs. Lloyd-Jones also noted ``a greater unity among women's groups than I have ever seen before. They don't seem to be having the controversy they were having when the peace movement began. I think there's a recognition that we can work together, even if we don't agree on every last detail.''
Urgency and unity -- the two themes ran as undercurrents through the three-day gathering. The most important script, in fact, was often written not by speakers on the platform but by members of the audience seeking ways to turn idealism into intelligent action.
``This is a subject that women by and large have not examined with any depth,'' said Geri Joseph, co-chairwoman of the conference. ``Many come with very strong feelings. But feelings are not enough. We need more than feelings if we are to be persuasive and effective.''
To get beyond feelings -- what Geraldine Ferraro in her closing address called ``an expertise of the soul'' -- women must arm themselves with facts and frequently sobering statistics.
According to Gordon Adams, director of the Defense Budget Project at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities here, the defense budget has doubled since 1980 and will triple by 1990 at current levels of spending. And on a worldwide basis, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates global arms to be an $800 billion industry.
For the Susan Reynoldses of the world -- the Everywoman with a simple, central concern for peace -- the conference defined two major challenges. The size and scope of the arms race can produce a feeling of hopelessness -- ``a pervasive sense that the problem can't be solved,'' as Candace Corson of Edenton, N.C., said.
Worse, the complexity of state-of-the-art warfare can leave Everywoman feeling she can't even understand the problem she can't solve. MX, ICBM, ABM, SDI (``star wars'') -- the alphabet-soup lexicon of missiles and defense programs, not to mention all the subtleties of SALT II -- threaten to polarize nuclear issues between ``experts'' in Washington and confused citizens everywhere else.
``As long as the debate is framed in a technical way, most people can't participate,'' said Jayne Maracek, director of a grass-roots organization in Minneapolis called Prospects for Peacemaking. ``We must invent new ways to involve citizens.''
Mrs. Joseph concurred. ``If you want the American public to understand -- and that's basic to a democracy -- you have to talk in terms people understand, or don't misunderstand,'' she said.
To that end, participants suggested, policymakers must stop practicing what one woman called ``technical intimidation'' -- deliberately keeping the subject so complex that only other experts in Washington can understand it.
Even here, in an audience well versed in national security issues, a few speakers were criticized privately for their failure to get beyond discussions of technology and military hardware.
``You have a human problem,'' one woman said, ``namely, how do we get along? And how do we fix it? With a machine -- a technological fix.''
Anne Ehrlich, a senior research associate in biological science at Stanford University, sounded a theme to which the conference kept returning when too many details piled up. She said: ``We have invented an unusable weapon.''
Despite the growing number of peace groups, women still lack an official voice that can be heard above the voices of male politicians -- still find themselves being patted on the head and told to run along.
Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado explained the challenge:
``As a woman the hardest thing I've always found in dealing with defense is, first of all, men want to tell you, `It's not your area, honey -- talk about something else. You've never fought in a war.'
``The next thing you get is, `You just couldn't possibly understand all of this.' [Men think] the only thing I could be interested in is what colors they're going to put in the interior of fighter aircraft.
``Or there is a suspicion that you're just there to take their toys and make them into your toys, i.e., you want [the money] for social programs.''
Some participants expressed concern that disarmament will be perceived as a ``women's issue,'' thus reducing the debate to a stereotype that missiles are macho and a freeze is feminine.
``Patriotism runs as deeply in women's veins as it does in men's, but it frequently gets expressed in very different ways,'' said Betty Bumpers, founder of Peace Links. ``It's not because women think better than men, but we think differently. It's not women against men, but women and men together.''
Still, the arms race remains intensely a women's issue.
``This is the year that ends the Decade of Women,'' Representative Schroeder explained.
``There is no question that women ended this decade in worse shape than they began it. There is not a lot of cause for celebration. There is more hunger. Women and children are in a much more precarious position.
``Part of what has crowded out any kind of development or progress for women and children has been this incredible international arms race that has eaten out of everything else. You cannot end the Decade of Women without talking about that.
``Where did the planet's money go?'' she asked rhetorically, summing up. ``How do women get up to the [Geneva conference] table so we can have a voice? That's our challenge -- knowing the statistics, knowing the facts.''