Congresswomen's caucus wields clout beyond its size
Washington — The ultimate goal of the congresswomen's caucus, says cochairwoman Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado, is to disband. "It would be wonderful to say, 'We're all equal now, the 900-plus items in the federal code that discriminate against women have all been wiped out, federal agencies don't discriminate any more, and half the members of the House and Senate are female -- so let's break up. We have no intention of keeping this as a social club.'"
In fact, the 17 representatives and one senator who make up the bipartisan caucus have a long row to hoe before they finish their stated purpose -- to end six discrimination in federal programs and policies. Just gathering all the female members of Congress under one banner has proved impossible to Ms. Schroeder and cochairwoman Margaret Heckler (R) of Massachusetts.
By avoiding confrontation on major issues like abortion and tiptoeing around other issues where they have no unanimity, the three- year-old caucus has tried to include all female members of Congress. "But some of the women are afraid to be labeled as single-issue people," explains caucus director Ann Smith with a sympathetic smile.
Says Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R) of New Jersey, who dropped her membership in the caucus, "I don't like to act only on behalf of women. Wherever injustice occurs, we allm need to be concerned."
Representative Schroeder begrudges such losses. "Can you imagine a black member refusing to join with the black caucus, saying there are no black issues?" she asks, commenting on the no-thank-you the caucus received from freshman Sen. Paula Hawkins (R) of Florida.
Interestingly, both Representative Schroeder and Ms. Smith dismiss other comparison with the 18-member black caucus as "apples and oranges," pointing out that the congresswomen's caucus is "newer, bipartsan, and representing half the people in this country."
Representative Schroeder identifies another disturbing difference between the two groups. "I've seen black leaders stand out there and take quite a bit of flak from the majority, but when they go back to their own groups, they are nurtured and supported," she says.
"This is simply not the case for women. We get flak from the majority, and then we turn around and get flak from each other."
Her caucus, then, is a rallying point and a target for both sides. Way out in front with women's issues in Congress, it leaves some of its own members behind.
"Only five or six of us carry on most of the work," she is frank in asserting. But that handful, she says, have been effective far beyond the limits of their size and number for two reasons: The work performed by the caucus in obtaining the Equal right Amendment ratification extension in 1978 and a growing awareness by legislators of the existence of a "women's vote."
Getting the ERA extension passed was "no cakewalk by any means," says Representative Schroeder, for it involved the wholesale submerging of individual women's groups into a unified cause. The caucus did "24-hour- a-day hand-holding," she says, and "pulled off the extension in a way that impressed the legislators -- they really didn't think we could do it."
Both the impression they made and the mechanics of coordinating women's groups around an issue have stayed with the caucus, she says, and have given it a running start on other issues. "It was a model," she says, "and it's a model we use again and again."
The congresswomen themselves are models, says director Smith, both to other women and to their male counterparts in the House and Senate. Housewives rathen than party picks, the women tended to reach this political pinnacle through the PTA, civic work, and the League of Women Voters rather than traditional party politics.
The role models are largely in the business of educating congressmen and the administration about "what's going on in the world," says Representative Schroeder. "Most of our laws are based on a 1930s model of what women and the family are like. There's this image of women as being 'taken care of' somewhere out of the mainstream. Well, surveys show that only 1 out of 10 women in this country gets through life without participating in the work force, and the rest work because they have to."
Representative Shcroeder says the caucus also needs to educate women. "I can't tell you the number of women who have come to my office and said, 'Oh, my life has been so hard, I was a homemaker and now I have no pension, I was divorced and now I have nothing.'
"But when I tell them they have to work for equality in the law, they say, 'Oh, you're just a women's libber.' They have no real perception that equality means them," she emphasizes.
"If those who are directly affected by inequities have these kinds of misconceptions, it's that much harder to persuade a body like the Senate, where almost no one is hurt by sex discrimination." Educating both groups, she says, is the caucus's most basic and important function.
To this end, the group started a biweekly newsletter that tracks bills, regulations, and court decisions on all women's issues. "People write in and say, "Can't you do something on that bill about credit?'" says Ms. Smith. "Well , the congressmen need the number of the bill and some idea of what committee it is in. Our 'Update' supplies such information in a bipartisan way -- we don't take stands."
But Representative Schroeder does not want even specific complaints. "When people come to talk about pensions, credit, sexual harassment, social security," she says, ticking off a familiar list, "I say, 'Look, we're already sold on these bills -- go and talk with your own congressmen. They're not going to know how pressing these issues are unless they hear from their own constituents.'"
She suggests that such letters ask for two commitments: that the congressman support the bill in question and that he put it high on his list of priorities. "We get lots of people saying, 'Sure, we can support this, but there are so many other bills that are more pressing,'" she reports.
Another common excuse for neglecting women's bills is that "even if we get this through the House, nothing has been started in the Senate." That excuse bit the dust with the joint introduction this year of the Women's Economic Equity Act, package of women's bills largely gathered from past legislation introduced by the caucus.
The fact that the Senate also introduced this package is taken by Representative Schroeder as a hopeful sign that the senators are starting to view women as "more in the mainstream. They saw that women were voting differently on issues and said, 'Gulp, what can we do to show that we're for women?'"
Fostering such an attitude, she says, is one of the long-term goals of the caucus. "You serve on these committees -- and you're always the only woman there, they have us so sprinkled around -- and you end up asking the questions over and over again: How does this affect women" How many women are involved in this? Will women get an equal share, equal pay, equal say?
"Then the congressmen complain, "There she goes again, asking the same old questions,'" she laments. "But no one else is asking them!"m
Eventually, she hopes, the questions will become so routine that "everyone will ask them." And then, perhaps, the caucus will disband.