Long before the women's movement blossomed under the leadership of Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer, there was a federal agency that fought for working women. On the occasion of the Women's Bureau's 60th anniversary, Rosalynn Carter, Lynda Johnson Robb, Eleanor Holmes Norton and Betty Friedan yesterday praised the successes of the past but pointedly reminded their 1,000 co-celebrants that an equally difficult time lay ahead.
"The Women's Bureau has always been a friend . . . for women who lag behind their male counterparts . . . for teen-agers who need values . . . for displaced homemakers, women in prison," said Rosalynn Carter. "There are still great challenges ahead in the 1980s," she added in a tone of muted anxiety.
Throughout the first day of the anniversary conference, progress of women was a contagious theme. But the warnings against complacency were just as strong. "Sixty years ago, when you mentioned women and labor in the same breath, people thought you meant birth pains. Sixty years is a long time when we look at how far we've come, but a short time if we see how long we have to go," said Robb, the chair of the President's Advisory Committee for Women. At the opening session of the bureau's three-day conference at the Capital Hilton, her softly-edged skepticism was echoed by Labor Secretary Ray Marshall. "The 1970s saw an unprecedented increase of women in the work force . . . Now we must be concerned about men who want to speed up automobiles but slow down women."
The formal statements and casual discussions in the halls covered some old ground, such as free choice in family planning, the movement's internal insensitivity toward minorities, the movement of women into nontraditional roles and some newer issues, such as the support system of women who have token corporate leadership jobs and pay equity.
Said Norton, chair of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, "pay equity has to be the next focus. There are so many examples, as the university librarian, female, who gets paid less than the campus ground keepers, male. We have hope that we can crack this one. Employers are saying we don't have the jurisdiction, but we have already won cases in two circuit courts." Alexis Herman, the director of the bureau that shapes policy for the 44 million women in the marketplace, said the pay equity issue would be a major emphasis of the agency. "That's the chief reason for occupational segregation today," she asserted.
"In the second stage of the women's movement, we have to move beyond sexual politics," said Friedan, who was sharing a panel with Norton; Joyce Miller, the first woman official on the AFL-CIO executive council; and Polly Baca Barragan, a Colorado state senator. She continued, "Men will come together with women . . . They are envious of our new momentum."
She also had one of the final words on the bureau's impact. "Fifteen years ago I thought the Women's Bureau was just there to keep us quiet. Now the bureau is taking on the whole agenda. And that's fine with me."