WASHINGTON — THEY stood, 10 strong, before the cameras and made their case: Some of us are mothers, some are grandmothers, some have raised children alone on low incomes, but all of us, they said, believe the welfare-reform bill the House was about to pass is compassionate to women and children.
It is the current system that is cruel, they said, by trapping people in poverty. Then they put forward several amendments aimed at strengthening the Republican bill ''and at the same time softening it a bit,'' said Rep. Deborah Pryce (R) of Ohio.
These women are all Republican members of the House of Representatives; it was their first group press conference of the 104th Congress -- in its own small way a historic moment in a historic session. (75th anniversary of women's vote, Page 10).The GOP boasts more women House members than ever: 17, up from 12 in the last Congress. And in a year marking the milestones of women's role in politics -- the 75th anniversary of national women's suffrage and the 100th anniversary of women's membership in state legislatures -- Republican women are beginning to find their voice in a body dominated for decades by Democratic men.
To be sure, women overall still make up only a fraction of the House and Senate's 535 members. The Democrats have 30 women in the House, down from 35 last year; in the Senate, there are five Democratic and three Republican women.
But as the new Republican-controlled Congress marches through the Contract With America, the GOP's female members are proving to be valuable troops in Speaker Newt Gingrich's army.
Last week, with just days to go before the House welfare vote, Representative Pryce decided the Republican women were uniquely positioned to help the party beat back charges that it was cruel and heartless.
''To be brutally honest, I thought the Republicans were taking quite a beating on welfare, and that putting our women up in front of the cameras and in front of the press with our ideas'' would help, she says.
Speaker Gingrich has long recognized the value of women's input -- first in the Republican drive to take over Congress and, now, in carrying out the GOP agenda.
He knows women voters tend to lean Democratic, and that the gender gap on many key issues favors Democrats. As minority leader in the last Congress, he started biweekly meetings with GOP women to strategize on getting more women elected and attracting women voters. In this Congress, the meetings have focused on issues.
According to Republican strategist Linda Divall, Gingrich listens in particular to Ms. Pryce, Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington, Rep. Susan Molinari of New York, and Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut (all of whom, as it happens, support abortion rights).
Gingrich and other Republican leaders have positioned women for maximum attention -- physically placing them out front at press conferences and, operationally, putting women in top committee assignments and in charge of key legislation.
Rep. Jan Meyers (R) of Kansas, head of the Small Business Committee, is the first female committee chair in 20 years.
Rep. Enid Greene Waldholtz (R) of Utah is the first freshman, male or female, to serve on the powerful Rules Committee in 80 years. (Republicans point out that 22-year veteran Rep. Pat Schroeder (D) of Colorado has never chaired a committee.)
But the ''femi-Newties,'' as they have been dubbed, are not monolithic. Two of the 17 voted against welfare reform: Connie Morella of Maryland, because she found it too harsh, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, because it would bar benefits to legal immigrants.
The GOP women are also split down the middle on abortion rights. Of the seven new women, six are anti-abortion, as are a few veteran members. On welfare reform, that did not divide them. Though some ''pro-life'' groups opposed welfare reform, the GOP's anti-abortion women stuck with their party. But the issue could prove divisive for GOP women in the future.
Some of the Republican women avoid the label ''woman legislator.'' ''People aren't interested in whether I'm a man or a woman. They want to know, am I reliable? Do I follow through?'' says Congresswoman Waldholtz.
Freshman Rep. Andrea Seastrand (R) of California, also prefers not to focus on the so-called women's issues. All issues are women's issues, she says.
Others, like Congresswoman Morella, the Republican co-chair of the House's bipartisan Women's Caucus, says ''there are times when I think the women's perspective should shine through some legislation, or we lose opportunities.''
''When I was elected I didn't play the woman's card, I played the issues,'' says Pryce, who was elected in the 1992 ''year of the woman.''
''But when I got here, I found that being a woman was a great advantage for me. There were so few of us Republicans to begin with -- three in the freshman class. We got a lot of attention.''
Now the expanded cohort of House GOP women celebrates its diversity. But, the bottom line is that women members bring their life experiences to the table. Several members have been single working mothers. Waldholtz has announced she's pregnant, putting her in line to be the first Republican member to give birth. Historically, it is the women members who have pushed to fund research on women's health issues.
On welfare reform, it was women members who pushed through amendments to increase funding for child care and to put stricter child-support enforcement in place -- the point of last week's GOP women's press conference.
But the institution remains a male bastion. There's still no ladies' room off the House floor. And male members are still heard to comment ''What are they up to?'' when a group of female members huddle.
The bipartisan Women's Caucus, now staffed on a volunteer basis outside Congress since the closing of legislative service organizations, is struggling to get back on its feet.
Ten of the 17 GOP women members have not joined, mainly over the caucus's pro-abortion-rights position.
But at a highly partisan time, Republicans and Democrats active in the Women's Caucus note that they worked hard together to insert tougher child-support laws into the welfare-reform bill at the committee level (though they didn't succeed).
Rep. Nita Lowey (D) of New York, the Democratic co-chair of the Women's Caucus, was less-than-charitable about the Republican women's press conference.
''I looked at it almost as an apologia,'' says Ms. Lowey. ''Many of them know better, they know it [the GOP welfare reform] will hurt women and children. They were brought into line by their leadership.''