The Women's Bureau of the US Department of Labor celebrated its 60th anniversary with a conference attended by over 1,000 women last September in Washington. During one of the program sessions then Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall warned participants against electing a president who "wants to speed up automobiles and slow down women." Everyone understood the reference meant Ronald Reagan being for a higher national speed limit but against passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. We applauded and laughed at what then seemed a joke. It is a joke no more.
The Equal Rights Amendment is not the only women's issue in trouble. The Women's Bureau itself is now in jeopardy. Despite its long and consistent record of acting as the only federal agency devoted exclusively to the concerns of working women, its advocacy role may now be seriously limited. This is especially true if President Reagan takes the advice of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
The foundation has produced a $160,000, 20-volume draft report with sweeping proposals for a new conservative government. Abolishing the Women's Bureau, the report says, would not be "politically prudent." Instead, it recommends that "their activities can be reduced by allowing staff reductions through attrition, allowing no new programs or activities, allowing no budget increases and allowing no new publications."
If women stand by and watch the beheading of this agency, we will have ourselves partly to blame. The Washington national office of the Women's Bureau (which has administrators in 10 regions) has worked in close cooperation with women's organizations, union women, community groups, and federal, state, and local agencies in efforts to develop programs and policies which benefit all working women. It is time for us all to stand up and be counted to save the Women's Bureau from ignominy for the next four years.
It is no secret why the Heritage Foundation in its "Mandate for Leadership" report recommends "no new programs" and "no new publications" for the Women's Bureau. The agency in recent years has targeted its program toward women who need assistance in entering the economic mainstream: displaced homemakers, battered women, rural women, women offenders, olde women, teen women, and minority women. Moreover, during the Carter administration, the bureau made the ERA a major priority.
The bureau's publications (most of which are free) also reflect the issues to which the agency devotes itself: "The Earnings Gap Between Men and Women," "A Woman's Guide to Apprenticeship," "A Guide to Seeking Funds from CETA," "Resource Kit on Battered Women," "Employment Needs of Women Offenders," "Women with Low Incomes," "Women in Non-Traditional Jobs," "A Working Woman's Guide to Her job Rights," "Ban Against Pregnancy Discrimination," and "Community Solutions to Child Care," to name only a few.
These are not the issues and publications which concern people who now fantasize about the arrival of conservative politics, "class," and "elegance" in Hollywood on the Potomac. The trouble with those fantasies is that they do not change the realities of most Americans' daily lives. The reality of 80 percent of our nation's women still working in low- paying, low-status jobs must be brought to the attention of an administration which does not consider the ERA necessary. Ignoring that reality is not the way to change it.
The Women's Bureau for 60 years has helped ensure that the needs and concerns of working women were not ignored. During the next four years, we may need the bureau more than ever. American women must be gin now to help ensure its survival.