The White House Conference on Families, set up by President Jimmy Carter to discuss the strengths and problems of American homelife, has begun to resemble a family feud.
An ideological fight is shaping up as states pick delegates to attend the three national conference planned for this summer in Baltimore (June 5-7), Minneapolis (June 19-21), and Los Angeles (July 10-12).
A conservative "pro-family" coalition, opposed to abortion, the Equal Rights amendment to the US Constitution, and sex education, won a majority of delegates at two of the first three state elections in Virginia and Oklahoma. Although the moderate groups won the majority of seats in South Dakota, both feminists and moderates were taken by surprise by the "pro-family" strength. At a recent election in New York City, feminist groups pulled together to win the majority of seats.
At least one state, Alabama, has questioned the value of the national conference and is considering boycotting it altogether.
The pro-family groups include Phyllis Schlafly's anti-ERA Eagle Forum and various right-to-life alliances. They favor less intervention by the federal government.
Moderate and liberal factions, including such diverse groups as the Future Homemakers of America, the American Red Cross, and the National Gay Task Force, have joined forces to keep conservative groups from running the show. They support a broad range of views, including federal funding of programs such as day care and help for displaced homemakers.
Organizers of the conference says they take a neutral stand.
"We are simply trying to involve everybody," says Mike Grant, public affairs specialist for the White House Conference. "we are giving citizens a vehicle to talk about issues that adversely affect families. We hope to hear from as diverse groups as possible."
The conference has been beset by controversy from its beginning in 1976. President Carter named Health, Education, and Welfare Department officer Patricia Fleming, a black, divorced mother of three teen-agers, to head the conference. She resigned after a group of Catholics asked for a male co- director from a more "intact family." Conference plans were abandoned until the White House revived them last spring.
Currently, each state and territory is conducting forums where citizens can talk about issues that concern families. Delegates elected and appointed from each will attend one of the national conferences and bring 10 topics of concern to the participants in their state. A platform will be adopted at each regional conference and sent to the White House.
Although many of the state meetings are just now getting under way, state coordinators report that they have been well attended. Family members, social service workers, and educators have addressed issues including inflation, the impact of the Equal Rights amendment on families, more parenting education at a high school level, time management for dual career families, pornography, recreation, education, energy, and concern over wasteful federal programs.
Jim Guy Tucker, chairman of the conference, explained the purpose of the conference at a regional meeting in Hartford, Conn., last fal. He said the White House recognizes that the federal government should be considering the impact of its policies on the family.
"It is unrealistic to think that government policy doesn't have a great impact on the family," he said, listing programs such as social security, taxes, health legislation, housing, and foster care as just a few areas that involve families.
"We are not searching for intrusive government solutions," Mr. Tucker added. "We may find out in some cases that the government is not helping the family with its programs."
Pro-family groups say flatly that the conference shouldn't have been called in the first place. Susan Wismar, administrator of Family America and coordinator of the Pro-Family Coalition of the White House Conference on families, thinks the conference may give the federal government power in areas that only state and local governments should handle.
"How can they sense what family problems are?" she asks.
One pro-family organizer wants to know why the White House is interested in her family.
"There's got to be a strong outcry against this," she says. "The executive power is not being checked."
More moderate participants see the conference as a good step toward helping the American family.
"If we can keep it on target, the conference is designed to examine our strengths as well as our problems," says Nancy Stokes, Delaware state president of the American Association of University Women. "I think there can be great benefits." She sees the conference helping communities and states to determine the needs of their families and to find local solutions.
The fight for delegates involves grass-roots organizing tactics and an attempt by state coordinators to make sure no one group comes in to "stack" elections. Many moderate groups are worried about the skillful planning the pro-family groups have done.
Says one state worker, "We are still in trouble of having the more conservative groups take over. Moderates have a way of backing off if there is a dog fight, and the conservatives are very organized. And as far as I can see, they are not willing to compromise."
Pro-family organizer Susan Wismar replies: "It obviously made them shudder when we won in Virginia and Oklahoma. They asked us to become involved, and because we did we are being labeled as poisoning the conference."
Besides polarity on issues, there is a big difference even in the groups' definitions of the family.
The pro-family groups want government approval for their definition of a family as persons related by blood, marriage, or adoption.the more moderate groups recognize a broader definition of families as anybody in a loving and caring relationship, sometimes including unmarried and homosexual couples.
There has been little talk of neutral turf between the factions. The different coalitions may agree on the issue of the complicated tax structure that causes penalties to some married couples. But most pro-family groups will consider the conference a failure unless their views dominate.
"We were shut out at the International Women's Year Conference," says one member of the pro-family coalition. "we're not going to be shut out this time."