DES MOINES, Iowa — "My daughter is a nurse. She has five years of education. She does not get as much of salary as some custodians. She has no health benefits through her hospital. And she has a bachelor of science degree," an exasperated Sue Mullins said in defense of comparable worth Sunday morning to a crowded workshop of Republican women.
Fighting to keep her composure, her tight throat keeping her anger and hurt in check, she proceeded to spell out how the issues under discussion were indeed Republican issues, their issues: The equal rights amendment was first supported by the Republican Party. And as for talk of economic justice and raising the minimum wage, she said: "Walk into a fast-food store, a place where they pay low wages, and see what percentage of the workers are women. If we only have women working at the minimum wage, they are not going to be able to support their families."
Mullins is an Iowa state representative, a farmer from the north central region and a lifelong Republican. She calls herself a moderate.
She supports a "women's agenda" of public policy issues that, in addition to comparable worth, includes passage of the ERA, the right to reproductive freedom, including abortion, access to comprehensive and long-term health care, child care and elder care, job training, pay equity, welfare reform and cuts in military spending to provide a more balanced budget.
The ERA, self-sufficiency and the family notwithstanding, 20 years ago, when the current phase of the women's rights movement was beginning, some of those issues Mullins calls hers were espoused by radical feminists or flaming liberals. Just how far they have moved into the mainstream of either party or the nation is about to be put to the test.
Coalition of 42 Organizations
This past weekend 1,100 politically active women--Republicans, Democrats and independents--gathered at the Des Moines Convention Center for the Women's Agenda Conference, an unprecedented event sponsored by a coalition of 42 national women's organizations with an estimated combined membership of 10 million, dispersed in 15,000 grass-roots groups.
They were a broadly based group spanning all ages, minorities and ethnic groups, but united, as Elizabeth Abramowitz, president of the Black Women's Agenda, urged them to remain, saying "Keep your eye on the prize." (To that end, for example, minority women announced a "women of color leadership council" and adopted a separate, more far-reaching agenda while committing themselves to support the women's agenda as well.) They met, their leaders announced, to ensure that their concerns be included on the political agendas of the presidential candidates and in the campaign debates.
"The candidates cannot continue to roll over and play dead when it comes to women's issues," said Beth Wray, president of the Federation of Business and Professional Women, the main sponsor of the conference. "We're a force to be reckoned with. We matter too much."
History and the numbers are on their side, they said, releasing a study that reports that women, along with blacks, played a decisive role in six Senate races in 1986, that 10 million more women than men are expected to vote in 1988, and that they are voting differently than men.
Like men, they are concerned with economic issues, but not in terms of the national debt and trade deficit. They are voting their pocketbooks, "kitchen table, checkbook issues," as Sarah Harder, president of the 150,000-member American Assn. of University Women, said.
They believe they are not alone.
"The women's agenda has become the country's agenda," Wray said.
On Saturday, five Democratic candidates--former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Illinois Sen. Paul Simon--appeared before the women, made separate statements and responded to questions from panelists.
The Republican candidates, along with the other two Democratic candidates--former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart and Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore--did not accept the invitation. Their absence, most seemed to believe, gave an indication what those candidates thought of women and their issues.
"It's their loss," Irene Natividad, chairwoman of the National Women's Political Caucus, said, echoing the sentiments of many who observed that at least half of the women are still not committed to a candidate, and that at least a third of those present were Republicans. (For example, about 54% of the professional women's federation's 150,000 members are Republican.)
Once the candidates had spoken, Sarah Harder told those assembled, "The real work of the conference begins." She dispersed them to workshops geared to figuring out how to convince the candidates, the parties and country that the women's agenda is everyone's.