There wasn't a bunny suit or munchkin to be seen at last night's National Woman's Party celebration of the 63rd anniversary of the passage of women's suffrage, but the mention of Barbara Honegger's name was a certain conversation starter. Honegger resigned from her Justice Department position earlier this week after calling President Reagan's policies on women's rights a "sham," and last night's celebrants clearly agreed with her choice of words.
"Ms. Honegger has really done her job," said Marguerite Rawalt, a past president of the National Association of Women Lawyers who was a member of President Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women. "I think we've got Reagan on the ropes now. I think we're in a better position than we've ever been."
The party took place in the garden of the Sewall-Belmont House on Capitol Hill. The house, which serves as party headquarters, was the home of NWP founder Alice Paul, who was instrumental in drafting the 19th amendment in 1923. Appropriately enough, the talk centered on the ERA and its reintroduction in Congress. Everyone agreed that the congressional opposition to the ERA was better organized than it had been when the amendment was first introduced in 1972, but the mood was upbeat nonetheless.
Honegger's accusations "showed that the opposition is really not in good faith when President Reagan says he can use the 50 state programs as a viable replacement of the ERA," said Rep. Donald Edwards (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights. Edwards will be holding hearings on the ERA in late September. "She Honegger did great."
National Woman's Party President Elizabeth Chittick was a little more restrained.
"She is very intelligent and well-spoken--she is outspoken, and there's nothing wrong with that," she said. However, she continued, "I think Reagan was softening and now he's been backed into a corner. You don't win a battle by shaking your fists and your guns. This is trivializing the issue."
But Dorothy S. Ridings, president of the League of Women Voters, was positively jubilant. "Today has been a terrific day," she said with a huge smile. "It couldn't have been better planned by a PR firm, and I don't think it was--I think the president was just saying those things on his own. I'm one of those people who believes opposition can make you stronger. And if he keeps saying, 'What do these people want?' someone will have to give him an intelligent answer.
"I think a lot of people didn't realize how serious the threat was," she continued. "People thought, 'Hey, we've got Title IX, it's okay.' Well, it was not okay."
From its founding in 1919, the League's main purpose has been to involve women in the electoral process, and it wasn't until 1980 that women started voting in the same percentages as men. But since (as Ridings is quick to point out) there are more women than men, an equal percentage of the vote does not mean an equal number of votes.
"Women are outvoting men and there are more of us," Ridings said. "A six million vote difference in '82--now that's a lot of votes."
This "gender gap" was one of the main sources of optimism last night.
"Now everybody understands it," said Ann Lewis, political director for the Democratic National Committee. "You don't have to take three courses in women's studies with a required reading list to understand what the gender gap is. It's a major factor in the political system now. It's probably the most important development in women's rights since August 26, 1920."