Gender gap gives momentum to women's bills

For women's rights, it may not look like a banner congressional session. The Equal Rights Amendment failed in the House, and the insurance lobby crushed a bill to ban sex-based insurance rates. Even as American women picked up Olympic medals in Los Angeles, a bill to guarantee women an equal share in athletic programs at schools and colleges stalled in the Senate.

But despite those setbacks, the waning 98th Congress has marked up impressive accomplishments in the area of economic fairness for women. It has completed a major enforcement bill to crack down on absent parents who fail to make their child-support payments. The new law will provide for garnishing paychecks of delinquent parents, most of whom are fathers, in an effort to collect an estimated $4 billion in support payments that now go unpaid each year.

The legislators also passed a landmark pension-rights bill to meet the needs of millions of women who have had little pension protection, either from their husbands' retirement programs or from their own work experience. (See story above.)

Both reforms, which had been discussed for years, sped through both houses last week, in the effortless way of ideas whose time had certainly arrived.

During almost two years of bitter political wrangling on Capitol Hill, issues of women's equity have become one of the few bipartisan rallying points. They also offer clear evidence that the publicized ''gender gap'' is bearing its first legislative fruits.

For the past two elections the lawmakers discovered that women were voting in bloc not only in presidential races, but also in congressional elections, where they were leaning considerably more toward Democrats. That gender gap ''made the picture much clearer to many members of Congress,'' says Rep. Olympia J. Snowe (R) of Maine, who co-chairs the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues. ''It made members of Congress aware of the problems women were facing.''

For supporters of women's rights, the gender gap has provided one of the best tools since women's suffrage was won. Democrats hastened to exploit the female preference for their party, while Republicans looked for ways to woo women voters back to the GOP. Both sides have developed renewed interest in the plight of women.

The Reagan administration sent signals early in the session that it had received the message. ''In the beginning there was a lot of arms' distance'' on reform proposals, says Ann Radigan, staff director for the women's issues caucus. But she adds that the White House has since backed both the pension and child-support reforms.

The new mood was symbolized early in this Congress, when an unusually large group of members from both parties and both houses assembled in March 1983 to declare their determination to pass the Women's Economic Equity Act, a package including nearly all of the women's reform proposals.

The act started out as a ''wish list,'' says Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon, one of the sponsors, who adds that ''we had some major victories'' as well as losses.

The legislative session has not fulfilled all the hopes of women's rights groups. ''I would characterize it as productive, but not nearly as good as we had hoped for,'' says Mary Gray, president of the Women's Equity Action League (WEAL). Dr. Gray, a math professor at American University, called the reforms that were passed ''a start,'' but added that the biggest disappointment was the failure of the uniform-rates insurance bill.

''It seems that the gender gap is important if there's no competing interest group,'' she says, citing the massive lobbying effort by the insurance industry to halt a reform of their rate system. Companies currently use different rate tables for the sexes for many forms of insurance based on life expectancy and driving records.

But WEAL has not counted the experience as a total loss. ''I think we raised an issue that will be back again,'' says Mary O. Shannon, legislative assistant for the group. She says the debate forced insurance companies to study the issue and educated the public.

Meanwhile, Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado and Representative Snowe, who head the women's caucus, are continuing to push some of the unfinished women's agenda to completion before the end of the 98th Congress.

In a letter to Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee, they asked for action on the ''Civil Rights Act of 1984,'' banning sex discrimination in education, as well as bills to establish after-school day care in school buildings and to establish a national listing for day-care services.

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