On the eve of the mammoth United Nations conference in Nairobi, Kenya, to mark the end of the Decade for Women, it appears likely that several of the most prominent American women chosen by Maureen Reagan as members of the official U.S. delegation will not be attending.
Former ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick, for example, is a member of the official delegation but will be in France at work on a book during the conference though she said she will be "on call" in case she is needed. The official conference begins July 15.
Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) and Rhode Island Attorney General Arlene Violet will not be at the conference, either. A spokesman for Kassebaum said the senator had made clear to organizers when she was appointed to the delegation that she does not like to travel and would not go to Nairobi; Violet, according to a spokesman, will remain in Rhode Island to oversee an important investigation.
Reps. Lindy Boggs (D-La.) and Marjorie Holt (R-Md.) have not yet decided whether their legislative schedules will allow them to attend, according to their offices.
If they do not, that leaves a delegation of about 30 women composed largely of lesser known Reagan appointees, State Department officials and private citizens such as Holland H. Coors, wife of beer magnate and political conservative Joseph Coors, and Jeri Winger, the international president of the General Federation of Women's Clubs. Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler is also a delegate and will attend.
In recent months, some American feminists have criticized the delegation as lacking representatives of American feminism. They conceded, however, that the delegation had political clout and stature. Now some of that clout would appear to be lessened.
"I don't think that's at all surprising given the attention this administration has paid to women's issues as a whole," said Sarah Weddington, former assistant to President Jimmy Carter and cochair, with former U.N. ambassador Donald McHenry, of the Carter administration's delegation to the 1980 U.N. conference on women in Copenhagen.
The conference and the unofficial forum that precedes it are expected to draw more than 10,000 women from more than 140 countries. They will assess achievements of the past 10 years and propose strategies to advance the cause of women through the year 2000.
High visibility for the U.S. delegation is important, Weddington said, because "the U.S. tends to be the pace setter in so many ways, even countries who use lots of anti-American rhetoric are at the same time trying to duplicate what the United States has done on women's issues . We set the standard," she said. "So to have a delegation with few names they will recognize won't help."
Weddington and other women who have attended the previous two U.N. conferences on women, in Mexico in 1975 and Copenhagen, also have criticized the Reagan delegation for including relatively few veterans of the two previous conferences.
Maureen Reagan could not be reached for comment this week, but Nancy Clark Reynolds, a Reagan friend, political lobbyist and deputy chair of the delegation dismissed the criticism as inaccurate and ill-informed.
"I think Maureen Reagan is up to the standards of Jeane Kirkpatrick. She is one savvy, smart, dedicated lady and this is the best prepared, most cohesive delegation I've seen." Reynolds described the group as fully capable of representing the U.S. agenda on women's issues at the conference and added that the delegates have been thoroughly prepared for the rigors of U.N. politics, which inevitably include a great deal of anti-American rhetoric from Eastern bloc countries and nations in the so-called Group of 77, the nonaligned, developing nations.
"At any U.N. conference there is always a lot of anti-American sentiment, that's a guarantee," Reynolds said. "I remember the first U.N. preparatory conference I went to, I was filled with outrage. I was stunned at the vitriol and hate and lies that spilled forth about my country . . . I felt like punching someone out.
"You hear it, and you hear it from many countries, and it takes your breath away. But we're going there with humility, affection and respect for these women. And this delegation has been very well briefed . . . We aren't gonna have that 'kick me' sign around us anymore."
The U.S. delegation will fly to Nairobi on July 11 aboard an Air Force jet. Aboard will be Margaret Tutwiler, assistant secretary for public affairs at the Treasury Department; Linda Chavez, deputy assistant to the president; Lenora Alexander, director of the Women's Bureau at the Department of Labor; Lois Haight Herrington, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs; Esther Coopersmith, a Democrat and political activist; Virginia Allan, a former deputy assistant secretary of State; Rhoda M. Dorsey, president of Goucher College, and others.
The only male member of the delegation is likely to be one of its most influential: Alan Lee Keyes, a 35-year-old U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Economic and Social Council in New York and said by some administration officials to be next in line to be assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs.
The conference's official title is the 1985 World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women, but in addition to assessing progress (the consensus is there's been some since the Decade began, including consciousness-raising and the gathering of valuable statistical information) delegates will attempt to compile a blueprint with specific proposals to improve the status of women worldwide through the year 2000.
It is over that document that the political fireworks are likely to erupt. At previous conferences, various nations have attempted to work amendments on such controversial issues as Palestinian refugees, apartheid and disarmament into the official conference report.
In 1980 for example, a group of nonaligned nations succeeded in adding an amendment to the conference document that equated Zionism with racism. The United States and Israel protested and refused to sign the report. This year the United States, which funds approximately one-quarter of the U.N. budget, will once again try to keep the conference focused on development issues, like illiteracy, women and domestic violence and health care, and away from controversy.
The Nairobi conference also takes place against a backdrop of U.S. disenchantment with the United Nations. Former U.N. ambassador Kirkpatrick, principal architect of the Reagan administration's aggressive, unrepentant stance at the U.N. General Assembly, briefed the U.S. delegation several weeks ago and said she warned them about the limitations of life at the United Nations.
"The U.S. has been slower than most countries to understand that all U.N. conferences in all the various U.N. arenas tend to repeat each other, and that the policies of the General Assembly in New York are simply transferred to these other conferences. There are very sharp limitations to what can be accomplished there," Kirkpatrick said this week.
"There are going to be a lot of anti-U.S. resolutions and attacks . . . driven by the Soviet bloc and that's just the way it is, and they shouldn't think there's anything they have done that has brought it about. About all we can do is be clear about our goals and behave with some intelligence and integrity."
Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), a member of the 1980 delegation to Copenhagen, says another problem with the conference is its rather tenuous link with any legislative reality. The resulting document will be nonbinding and relatively few of the women at the conference will be parliamentarians or have any legislative power within their own nations. Another problem, Schroeder says, is the refusal of the United States to see the link between defense spending and the arms race and the economic status of women around the world.
Many other women, however, veterans of previous U.N. conferences, feminists and development specialists, insist that the U.N.'s decision in 1975 to devote 10 years of attention to the status of women around the world already has borne fruit and that the conference, even if it deteriorates at moments to circus or farce, is well worth the estimated $2.5 million the United Nations will spend to put it on.
The Decade has yielded increased statistical information on women and problems like illiteracy, health, birth control and the role of women in development policy, both as benefactors and recipients. The United Nations' own agencies have become more aware of the role of women as they dispense money for development projects. There is increased recognition at the United Nations of the unique problems of refugee women, for example, and there are many more women's groups around the world than there were in 1975. Each delegate who attends the conference, say its defenders, goes home and creates a ripple of her own. Small ripples perhaps, but a beginning.
"The plans of action that come out of these conferences are extremely important, particularly for Third World women," says Weddington. "If nothing else, it is an expression of world opinion. These women can go back to their own countries, to their own governments and hold up this document and say, 'You signed this, what are you doing about it?' "