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A First-Lady Salute to the American Woman

February 12, 1988|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — As the presidential hopefuls campaign in New Hampshire, 1,500 delegates to a symposium on "Women and the Constitution" are meeting here to remind those men, as Abigail Adams told her husband, John, in 1777, to "remember the ladies."

Indeed, Abigail has been heralded here by everyone from Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to former First Lady Rosalynn Carter as a symbol of what this conference is all about--about saluting the accomplishments of women of the past and addressing the inequities still faced by women today.

"We thought there was a gap" in last year's celebration of the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, Carter said in explaining why she and three other former First Ladies had convened this meeting.

Although women and women's issues weren't mentioned in the document drafted in Philadelphia in 1787 by 55 men, Carter said they "made it possible for us to change it" and she hopes one thing this meeting will do is boost chances for passage of the equal rights amendment.

An Election Year

The symposium "could not possibly have come at a better time," Carter said, than between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary as "candidates are focusing on issues . . ." But are the candidates listening to what the women here are saying--about the ERA, about the needs of elderly women and poor women and single parents, about the paucity of women in high elective office?

"Oh, I think we can make sure they pay attention," Carter said, adding that each will be getting "a briefing on what we've done."

The Carter Center of Emory University, founded by former President Jimmy Carter in 1982 to encourage dialogue on key foreign and domestic issues, is co-sponsoring "Women and the Constitution" with Georgia State University and the Jimmy Carter Library.

President Carter, speaking at Wednesday's opening session, said that he had come as Rosalynn's husband, Amy's father and grandfather of two girls, adding, "You can see already that my life is not only guided and inspired by women but ordered by women." He added, "I can't think of any subject that is more pertinent today" than that of women and the Constitution.

He spoke of his late mother, Miss Lillian, "a strong and able and decisive and dynamic and sometimes opinionated woman," and urged every woman here to be "extremely incisive and aggressive and ambitious and bold" in fighting for women's rights, adding, "My heart is with you."

Noting that women's issues have been "put on the back burner" during the last eight years, Rosalynn Carter said, "We are here to recognize our rightful heritage as 'We the People.' "

Lady Bird Johnson, reflecting on Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency, said her husband "had the eagerness and the will" to put women in high-level positions but it was difficult to find qualified women and then to persuade them to take the jobs.

After this conference, Johnson said, "We'll know who is where and who knows what" so it will be easy for the next President to do so.

Who is here and what are they up to? Former First Ladies Betty Ford and Pat Nixon, although formally listed as "conveners," are not here. Mrs. Nixon "does not join" things, Mrs. Carter said, but did send a message reaffirming her faith in the capabilities of women "to learn, to grow, to create, to endure, to prosper."

Mrs. Ford has been ill but sent a message saying that "Even though we haven't won the battle yet, I think we continue to win the struggle for self-respect . . . we have never been invisible and we will never again allow ourselves to be silent."

The delegates here come from 50 states and 10 foreign countries. They include academics, attorneys (among them Shirley Hufstedler of Los Angeles) and government administrators at the state and federal level. The roster of speakers includes Coretta Scott King, Geraldine Ferraro, Bella Abzug, Assemblywoman Maxine Waters of Los Angeles, Gloria Steinem, Eleanor Smeal, Erma Bombeck--and Rosa Parks, whose refusal to move to the back of the bus ignited the Civil Rights Movement of the '60s.

Sex-Bias Cases

O'Connor's keynote address at Wednesday's luncheon was less fiery than academic. A Reagan appointee and the first woman on the high court, O'Connor spoke of the "tenacious cultural and social barriers" still standing between women and absolute equality.

Noting that the Supreme Court has heard more than 50 cases since 1971 involving sex-based challenges about hiring, promotions, maternity leave, disability insurance, pension rights and seniority, she said "The court has now made it clear that it will no longer view as benign archaic and stereotypic notions concerning the roles and abilities of males and females."

But despite the gains of the last 30 years, there are "significant gaps," she said--only 20 women in Congress, for example, only 5% of women judges on federal and state benches.

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