THEY CAME TO CONGRESS to talk about what the next decade holds for American women and by the second day of testimony many of the witnesses made it clear that they were far more interested in what the next year holds for women. And they don't like what the Carter administration is proposing at all.
Yes, one of the women was Bella Abzug and when she testified before the Senate Committee on Human Resources, she brought the same message she delivered to the White House. But this time her listeners complimented her, applauded her and shook her hand, instead of giving her the boot. Abzug, one of some 20 witnesses who testified before a packed hearing room yesterday, told the committee that "it's time to accept the fact that women are here to stay in every place," and tht women are tired of "being told it's none of our business what the federal budget is, that we should stick to the ERA and abortion."
She told the committee that Congress has done pathetically little for women in the past few years and that it has to change its entire approach and look at laws and policies to see specifically how thy affect women and their families. And after Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.) warned that Carter's $29 billion deficit budget means that "fragile" social programs would be under even greater budget pressure, Abzug told the committee that "you have to have the courage to make that military budget leaner than it is... Our citizens need protection too, and they're not geting it."
Abzug has said this before, but this time she had a friendly forum and she was not alone. There was actress Marlo Thomas who talked of women coming to the Hill, " beating our breasts" for more programs such as flexi-time and job sharing and improved social security benefits for homemakers, and who said that the current programs are so limited, "so infinitessimal" that they are "almost condescending." She said there "seems to be a lot of lip service about taking care of the family" and yet, in effect, the government does very little to promote the family through social policy. "I don't understand why public policy doesn't lean in that direction since public sympathy does," she said.
There was Marion Pines, director of Baltimore's Comprehensive Employment Training Act programs, one of the most successful and highly regarded CETA programs in the country -- WHICH, ADMITTEDLY, IS A LITTLE LIKE SAYING IT'S THE TALLEST MIDGET. Pines outlined several of the Baltimore CETA programs benefiting displaced homemakers and pregnant teen-agers and said there should be more of these. Why, she asked the senators, is there legislation allowing employers to get $3,000 in tax credits for hiring ex-felons, certain Vietnam veterans, youths and not certain categories of women?
"The focus on women is as important as the focus on Vietnam veterans, youth and the handicapped," Pines said, adding that it was going to be "very hard" for Congress "to play God' to divide up the resources among all these groups. "The budget cuts are just going to play havoc with efforts to divide [the resources] up eqitably" among the so-called "protected" groups, she said.
And there was the statement of Jerry Wurf, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), read to the committee by Suone Cotner, the union's coordinator of women's activities. "We directly represent close to 600,000 women workers," said Wurf. "These AFSCME women don't work because they want to try on a new 'life style.' They work -- in cafeterias, in mental hospitals, in prisons, in welfare centers -- because they have to, because the survival of their households depends on the dollars they bring home."
"The danger," said Wurf, "and the reason for our ense of urgency today, is the budget the Carter administration has proposed for the next fiscal year. Our society has stretched a very fragile support net for women workers. The drastic spending cuts envisioned by the administration will tear that net to pieces."
Wurf and others criticized cuts in the CETA training programs for women and for displaced homemakers and cuts in the Work Incentive Program, which trains welfare recipients. And he criticized cuts in social security training programs that upgrade job skills of women concentrated in low-playing state jobs.
"We see austerity and recession and an atmosphere that brings all progress for women to a halt. We see affirmative action programs collapsing. We see training programs, where they remain, becoming empty exercises in futility for women who realize they're prepping for nonexistent jobs," said Wurf.
Feminists and their supporters in politics and the labor movement have been talking for years about the need for adequate child care, for career training programs for the poor and for older women, for better social security benefits for home-makers and for better access to the work force for women. These are not new issues, but something new happened to them this week.
This week, women and their supporters were given an adequate forum in Congress to talk about these problems and they talked about them not in amorphous generalities but with specific reference to the 1980 federal budget just sent to the Hill by Carter.
They don't like what they see, and they are probably too late to do much about it this year. This is the year when Congress is going to try to outdo the administration in budget cutting. The people who testified before the Senate committee probably should have gone to the Hill in earlier years when Congress was more liberal and more liberal in its spending, but they didn't. The women's movement was too young for that and, besides, when Congress discussed the budget, it didn't think in terms of women.
That's changed. The human resources committee didn't extend its invitation until after the first of the year and, yet, and such short notice it drew some 40 witnesses, ranging from college presidents and deans and professors to top women in government such as Isabel Sawhill, director of the National Commission for Employment Policy. Time and again, the witnesses came back to the point that Sawhill made, that the economy is a women's issue.
Abzug, in her celebrated confrontation with President Carter, once again gave the lead and now others have picked it up. For the first time, the women's movement is making the federal budget a women's movement is making the federal budget a women's issue. And while they may be too late this year, you got the feeling in the hearing room that they will be back.