"IM REAL HARD on women who think that just because they made it, just because they didn't need any help, they think no one else needs help," says Kathy Wilson, the chair of the National Women's Political Caucus.
Wilson made it very clear two weeks ago at the caucus convention in San Antonio what Reagan could do to help women: he could not run again.
They were startling words coming from a longtime politically active Republican. Reagan, she said, was "a dangerous man" in the context of women's rights.
Her words to college women who possess what she calls a "ho-hum" attitude toward the women's movement are equally direct.
"I tell them, 'Don't scoff at an organization working to keep your abortion rights.' " She leans forward on the sofa in her home in Alexandria, her voice low and steady. " 'Because they can be taken away from you in a minute.' "
The voice is determined but modulated with a hint of a twang, acquired perhaps during her years at the University of Missouri. Her voice does it all, really. No bluster. Just clear, low-key firmness. Very serious.
"Even some young practicing lawyers or young businesswomen will sit there and make fun of Bella Abzug. The naivete' is ridiculous. Had it not been for the Bella Abzugs of the world, they wouldn't have business degrees. There's a lack of appreciation of what gains have been made that now allow them to be arrogant about it--that's infuriating."
At 31, Wilson is not much older than some of those womenwho would be cavalier enough to roll their eyes at the women's movement.
However, she is several years younger than the majority of the members of the caucus, which is dedicated to helping elect women to public offices and seeing that they are appointed at all levels as well.
She is a Republican, the daughter of a retired Navy pilot, who grew up in a Republican family and married a Republican right out of college. She plans to stay a Republican, even if it means fighting the leadership in power. Especially if it means fighting the leadership in power. If someone from your own party criticizes you, it doesn't look like "partisan potshotting," as she calls it.
"It was a Republican speech," she says. "I was warning the Republicans that they're not going to win. Republican women are not going to vote for him. So they'd better pick someone else . . . It was not a vicious speech. It was really wanting him to step down so some of the moderates might have an opportunity to run and so that both parties can be concerned about women's rights, because clearly this leadership is doing nothing."
And you have no doubts when Kathy Wilson says of the 1984 Republican Convention, "I'm going to be the thorn in their sides."
HER PASSION for the issues is strong and well-articulated. She talks constantly of the gender gap. "Women have traditionally been the nurturers--around which all sorts of private values were built up. Men on the other hand had all the responsibilities of public citizenry--voting, making policy, running for office . . . It seems to me that when women gained the right to vote, they just adopted those public values . . . What I think the gender gap is all about is women becoming very comfortable with the notion that their private values are good enough to be their public values."
One triumph of the convention that she presided over was that the women in attendance could not all be pegged as one type.
"We still have our radicals and it's wonderful," she says. "And we have people in the middle . . . The real victory to me is that it's coming across as more broad-based than ever. There are homemakers and professional women and older women and middle-aged women and women with five kids."
And, of course, there are both Democrats and Republicans.
"In 20 years," Wilson says, "the caucus is clearly going to be the most powerful organization in the country for anything. I think it has that kind of potential--as leverage arm or political tourniquet to the body politic."
"BY AND large, most women are very supportive," she says. Of the ones who aren't, she says, "Experience usually irons that out."
It certainly did in her case. Just out of college, at the age of 22, she took a sales job at a Kansas City, Mo., hotel where she did well--"I was pretty much the top salesperson"--and trained two other men. She found out they were making $100 more a month. "It was just an incredible experience in which I was told, 'They're getting more money because they're men.' My boss told me. I was just aghast. I didn't know what to say . . . It really wasn't clear to me as it is not clear to a lot of women exactly what your options are. I didn't know about the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the EEO in the states."
She had been planning to quit the job anyway to get married, but she quit earlier. "I was just sort of outraged and quit and have since changed my life to fight for justice. It really had an impact on me . . . My husband and I just had endless discussions about it. Endless. I couldn't believe it. I could not believe it."
After she moved with her husband to Columbia, Mo., she joined the local chapter of the National Women's Political Caucus. "I'd been working on campaigns. It just seemed right to be working in an organization furthering women's rights but through the political process."
She had always been active in Republican political campaigns, working, while still in college, for John Danforth's first senatorial campaign in 1970 ("before I was an adamant feminist, I'll grant you, but he is a moderate Republican"). She worked for Christopher (Kit) Bond, the Republican governor of Missouri, in 1972 and 1976. She did advance work for President Ford at the 1976 convention and observed from the periphery the caucus' Republican Women's Task Force at work.
When she moved with her husband to Alexandria early in 1977, she was "aghast" at the fact that no chapter of the National Women's Political Caucus existed there. She and Betsy Griffith--now the Republican cochair of the Women's Campaign Fund--organized a Northern Virginia chapter in 1978. The following year, Wilson was elected Republican vice chair of the national organization. In 1981 she was elected chair of the caucus at the age of 29. Two weeks ago in San Antonio, she was reelected for another two-year term.
KATHY WILSON is angry at President Reagan. "Understand that it's anger built up as a result of effort after effort being thwarted--my efforts and a lot of people's . . . I know how frustrated Elizabeth Dole is at that White House."
Oh, she thinks he's a nice guy. "He just comes from an era where he thinks the nicest thing he can do for a woman is open the door for her and tell her she has on a pretty dress."
Generally Reagan's approach is the bandaid one, she says.
The 50-States Project:
"We were promised an aggressive pursuit of a state-by-state approach toward equality . . . The only thing that's been done is a review of the discriminatory statutes of the states, but to further demonstrate the futility of the program, 40 states had already done so anyway. The trick has never been in identifying the discriminatory statutes. The trick has been in getting legislators to do something about them."
Her voice is still modulated. Only the words convey her exasperation. "State-by-state is not satisfactory when you need an equal rights amendment." She delivers this zinger: "If we'd gone state by state for the vote, women in Mississippi would still not be voting."
The task force on legal equality:
"They don't have an office, they don't have a staff, they have no authority. They simply present what they believe to be discriminatory laws--most of which has been better done in a Civil Rights Commission study in 1978."
Reagan's stand on abortion:
"He's just been very aggressive about trying to come out with some version of the human life amendment--and that's just not acceptable."
She dismisses Dee Jepsen--wife of Sen. Roger Jepsen (R-Iowa)--Reagan's liaison to women's groups--as "absolutely worthless . . . She has no skills to impart, she does not believe there is a gender gap . . . Talk about a bandaid."
But of other women in the White House, she says, "Suffice it to say that the Helene Von Damms over there who believe in the president but were stunned time and time again that nothing was ever done were embarrassed to meet with women because there was never any good news."
So she is angry with this White House. "People are tired of beating their heads against walls because it feels good when you stop."
So why not switch parties?
"I've never talked to anyone who's done it for whom it's been easy," she says. "I think there is a sense of your new friends not necessarily trusting you in the new party and your old friends sort of write you off. It's sort of like leaving your country--it's a big thing if you're a political person."
WILSON SAYS she has not decided whom she prefers for president. (It will not be Reagan.) The caucus has never endorsed a presidential candidate, but 1984 might be the year they break that tradition. "What's clear is that most of the Democratic candidates are committed," Wilson says, noting, for example, that John Glenn "is very strong on the issue of abortion" and that Walter Mondale, at the convention, "knew the issues and was just comfortable. He started off saying, 'I am a feminist.' "
"Some will maybe go the extra mile," she says, "and maybe there's a sense that some might be more accessible than others, but women are still deciding about all of them."
KATHY WILSON has one child, is three month's pregnant with another and wondering how she and her husband, Paul, a political consultant, will manage it all. They both juggle demanding careers, traveling and taking care of their child. He cooks and she cleans.
The house in Alexandria is roomy and comfortable with a shaded front porch strewn with toys. In the living room, off to the side, there is a little table with cans of Play-Doh and an easel displaying a finger painting. These belong to Casey Rose Wilson, not quite 3, daughter of Kathy and Paul Wilson, a political consultant who is vice president of Bailey Deardourff and Associates in McLean. The firm's clients have included Gerald Ford (when he ran for president in 1976), Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) and Republican governors Jim Thompson of Illinois, Richard Thornburgh of Pennsylvania and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
"I think she thinks seeing your mom on television is commonplace," says Kathy Wilson as Casey, fresh from a nap, wanders into the living room with a Popsicle. "She hasn't made the distinction that a lot of mommies aren't on television."
Management of this burgeoning family with a time-consuming career worries her parents, who came in from Louisville to spend two weeks in Alexandria baby-sitting during the NWPC convention in San Antonio and helping out around the house.
"We're very proud of her," says M.A. (Red) Higdon, her father, "but we just worry if she'll be able to do all this and take care of the two children."
"It was sort of an accident," Wilson says of her pregnancy. "It was not at this point really planned, but I think that's just fine. If this can't be worked into this organization's agenda, then where can it be worked in?"
This past year, Casey traveled with her mother to 44 states "including Alaska," says Wilson. "She's real adaptable. And it works out real well. Caucus women have kids everywhere, and so I stay with someone who has a crib or a high chair."
Wilson enjoys the company of her daughter and looks forward to a time when Casey can understand the full impact of the work going on around her. " National Organization for Women President Judy Goldsmith's daughter is 13," says Wilson. "Her name's Rachel and she's just a lovely teen-age girl. I've been around them a little bit and there's such an appreciation. Her daughter is so enchanted with what Judy's doing and believes in it. There was a moment in which I wished Casey could be a little older to appreciate this."
Though Casey can't comprehend it all, she has picked up some of her mother's ways. "The housekeeper said that one of the little boys called the mail carrier 'the mailman' and Casey said, 'That's a mail carrier,' because that's what I call them." She chuckles. "Once Casey announced to our 70-year-old neighbor--who is not all that enchanted with what I do--that she had built a 'snowperson.' "
AT THE 1980 GOP convention, when she was pregnant with Casey, as Wilson saw the ERA get dropped from the platform, she joked offhandedly, "I hope I have a boy."
"I certainly hope that 20 years from now she has an ERA," says Wilson, "which will have as pervasive an impact as the Civil Rights Amendment had . . . What we're talking about here is options. We want the notion that the American dream is not gender-specific to prevail."
She thinks both she and her daughter will see a woman president.
"I think I'll see it in my lifetime and maybe a vice presidential nominee this election. I think my daughter will see a woman president before she's middle-aged."
And will it be her mother?
"I don't think so," says Kathy Wilson laughing. "But I'll tell you, the caucus is a training ground and I wouldn't rule it out."