President Reagan yesterday named Dee Jepsen, wife of Sen. Roger Jepsen (R-Iowa), as his chief liaison on women's issues, replacing Wendy Borcherdt, who was moved out of the job early this month.
The president, who is at his California ranch, also announced formation of a White House Coordinating Council on Women. As with most other working groups in the White House, the majority of the council membership will be male.
The council, which a White House announcement issued from the press office said would "serve as a focal point for the coordination of policies and issues that are of particular concern to women," will be chaired by Elizabeth H. Dole, assistant to the president for public liaison. Jepsen will report to Dole.
Dole yesterday denied reports that either clashes over how high a priority women's issues should be or personality friction between herself and Borcherdt were reasons for Borcherdt's leaving. "It had absolutely nothing to do with a personality clash," said Dole. "She had been looking at other positions in the administration. It was a mutual agreement--where could she best serve the president? Whenever a person is working for another person you just have to deal with whether or not that person is in the right slot."
Dole said she has known Dee Jepsen for several years. "She is an able, articulate person," said Dole. "I know she can get along with anyone. I know all of the groups will be able to get along with her. She's a very creative person and she has good ideas."
Jepsen, 48, an unsalaried assistant in her husband's office and the mother of six grown children, will assume her $52,000-a-year position Sept. 8. She is involved in numerous religious activities and is against abortion, according to Gina Bessey, a legislative assistant to Sen. Jepsen.
Earlier this summer, Reagan named Thelma Duggin as a special assistant in Dole's office to meet with governors and state representatives about taking actions to review laws to find out where there is discrimination and bias against women and seek to have it removed.
The appointments and the naming of the council come at a time when both public surveys and those taken privately for the president show that Reagan's approval rating is much higher among men than women, and that his standing is particularly low among working women.
Jepsen said yesterday, "I'm honored and I'm challenged and eager to get on board. I'll have to be briefed and read up."
As an assistant to her husband for the last three years, Jepsen has met with women's groups on various issues and worked closely with her husband on developing his pro-Israeli policy and revising the Family Protection Act. She also met with military wives when the Armed Services Subcommittee on Manpower and Personnel--which Sen. Jepsen chairs--introduced a bill to return to state courts the power to decide whether military pension retirement money could be considered community property. In 1981, the Supreme Court ruled that state courts could not consider military pensions as community property. The bill passed and now awaits Reagan's signature.
"I listened to the gals who had a really legitimate complaint," said Dee Jepsen about the military wives. "I've been able to lend an ear when Sen. Jepsen didn't have as much time."
Jepsen said that she was called by members of Dole's staff nearly two weeks ago and then had a meeting with Dole. "I know a lot of people in the White House and the president," said Jepsen, who campaigned for Reagan in 1980. "That made it easier. I was a known quantity." Jepsen was appointed to the president's task force on private sector initiative last December.
Jepsen said of Dole, her new boss, "I know her and we have a good relationship." Borcherdt, Jepsen's predecessor, was reported to have had a "personality clash" with Dole.
Jepsen said she also has "contacts with women's groups that I've made in the senator's office. It's not like coming in fresh from Iowa."
("We are reserving judgment on Dee Jepsen, because we don't know much about her," said Mary Houghton, spokesperson for the National Women's Political Caucus.)
Asked why she was chosen for the job, Jepsen said, "Mrs. Dole mentioned in a conversation that I have lines of communication, and I get along well with a variety of people."
Her job will involve being a liaison between women's groups and the president: "I'll meet with various women's groups and listen to their views and ideas and communicate them to the president. And I'll be a line of communication from him to them.
"I hope I can communicate to people within various groups the interest and concern the president has in women and their contributions," Jepsen said. "I know the president and it's easy for me to say. But sometimes the impression is otherwise. He does want to be sympathetic to women and listen to them. After all, 50 percent of his constituents are women."
Jepsen began her education in a one-room school house in Iowa. She did not attend college. She met her husband, then an insurance salesman, in a restaurant where she worked as a waitress.
Asked how he felt about her new position, Dee Jepsen said, "He's delighted. He's one of my biggest fans. Frankly, if he hadn't liked it, I would have stayed where I am. I didn't go looking for the job."
Of leaving her husband's staff, Jepsen said, "Like anything else, if you take your hand out of a bucket of water, a hole fills up. It will all work out."
According to her biography, she is a frequent guest on the Christian Broadcasting Network and the PTL broadcasting network. She was a featured speaker during the 1980 and 1982 Washington for Jesus rallies which brought together national religious leaders.
With her husband and Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and his wife, she founded CREED, the Christian Rescue Effort for the Emancipation of Dissidents, a group which tries to bring about the release of dissidents behind the Iron Curtain.
Since being in Washington, she has organized weekly Bible study groups for Senate wives. In Davenport, Iowa, she performed with a Christian women's theater group.
Currently, she speaks on various syndicated network talk shows and addressed the 1981 International Convention of Federated Women's Clubs in Des Moines. She often speaks on volunteerism and political issues, emphasizing women's roles in them. She is an officer of the Republican Congressional Wives Club and a member of the Ladies of the Senate.
The coordinating council on women that Reagan appointed yesterday consists of two women, Dole and presidential personnel assistant Helene von Damm--and four men. They are White House communications director David R. Gergen, policy development assistant Edwin L. Harper, Office of Management deputy director Joseph Wright, and Peter E. Teeley, press secretary for Vice President Bush.
The staff director of the council is Margaret D. Tutwiler, executive assistant to White House chief of staff James A. Baker III. Tutwiler is widely regarded as the White House aide who is most outspoken on women's issues.
The pattern of low standing among women has been a problem for Reagan ever since the 1980 election campaign when he ran far more strongly among male than among female voters. In that campaign he sought to defuse the concern among women voters by a variety of advocacies, among them a promise to appoint someone who would examine federal regulations and policies to see if any of them discriminated against women.
Ever since, there have been those in the White House who are concerned that Reagan is perceived as having dragged his feet on this promise. Gergen, Dole and Tutwiler have all pressed for more vigorous action by the administration in addressing the concerns of women.
The appointment of the council was accompanied by an announcement of an eight-woman working group that will provide staff assistance. Members are Jepsen and Duggin; Joanna Bistany, special assistant to the president for communications; Velma Montoya, assistant director for strategic planning in the office of policy development; Martha Hesse, special assistant to Wright; Susan Alvarado, Bush's assistant for congressional relations; Emily Rock, an aide to Harper, and J. Bonnie Newman, associate director of the personnel office.