SHE IS A NEIGHBOR and a friend and most of our conversations in the past have been about our houses, our kids and our gardens, which is where the conversation started last Saturday afternoon. Only it didn't stop there. We went from my dandelions to the cost of green peppers and steak, to the grim faces we are seeing in the supermarkets, and the next thing I knew she was talking about the oil companies and how they are ripping us off. Every way you turn, she said, every soaring cost you target, it all comes back to the oil companies. "It's scary," she said, "Where will it end?"
Women, says Bella Abzug, are finally beginning to understand about corporations and defense budgets and oil companies and inflation. They're becoming aware of the connection and they are getting furious. "They're beginning to suspect that it's a bit much," she said yesterday. "They're told we're going to cut the budget and inflation's going to go away and it doesn't go away, it gets worse."
"I think women are going to organize a lot more effectively politically," she said, and to that end, she and two other former congresswomen, Patsy Mink and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke have formed Women U.S.A. The organization is a direct byproduct of Abzug's celebrated confrontation with President Carter over his proposed budget in which she and the National Advisory Committee for Women criticized him for cutting $12.5 billion in social programs while increasing defense spending by $11.3 billion.
Carter fired Abzug over that but anyone could have told him she would be back. Abzug insisted at the time that the federal budget was a women's issue and yesterday Women U.S.A. went to Capitol Hill to make that point again, and to lobby members of the House as it began debating the budget. There were maybe 100 women participating in the spur of the moment effort but they were informed and they were well organized.
"The point," of yesterday's action, said Carol Burris, president of the Women's Lobby, "is making Women U.S.A. really visible, making sure that Congress understands that all those budget issues that the president fired Bella over are real issues and that women care about them."
"Bella got something like 10,000 letters [Bella says more like 5,000] from women with no connection with the women's movement who felt they'd worked, they paid taxes, they have a say in how the money's going to be spent. Women have a lot of unfunded needs and we've just begun to identify them," she said.
She identified some of the needs as programs for battered women, displaced homemakers, maternal and child health programs, family planning programs. And women are lobbying against cuts in social security benefits and they want, in this era of tight budgets, to transfer billions from military spending to domestic programs.
"The question," Abzug told a noontime rally near the Supreme Court, "is whether it's the corporations or the women and children who are going to be dealt with fairly in this country?"
There was a lot of feisty rhetoric at the rally and a lot of familiar faces. Then Meredith Homet took the microphone and you knew right off that she was from a different mold. She has that smooth, controlled voice certain rich women have and her hair was done in the soft blonde look certain rich women favor. Homet is executive director of the Women's Equity Action League. She is also a founder of the Women's National Bank in Washington. She is also high society: Ethel Walker boarding school, Briarcliff, New York Social Register. She is also a Republican.
"The time has come for American women to accept the realities of the American political system," she told the rally. "We have been the backbone of this system, crucual participants in a power structure that practially excludes us. Women have raised funds, registered voters, driven the electorate and served as precinct lieutenants. We volunteer our time to elect men to paid jobs and seldom obtain commitment as to paid employment for ourselves or even ask how they could serve our special interests in the Congress. . . .
"This body of legislators has the power to control major aspects of our lives, and we are meeting here today to plead with them to treat us fairly. Something is clearly amiss. What is wrong is that we have the numbers to defeat or elect legislators, yet our vote is not strong enough for them to fear us . . .
"Our democracy works on unadulterated, pure power, but it has been too heady, dirty and complicated for many women to understand or want to understand. This was naive and wrong. If our groups had political influence, we would not be here having to prove the need for strengthening social security, health programs, and child nutrition and education programs. . . . Women are 51 percent of the population, and this is potential power. But it must be exercized to exist, and it grows stronger with use . . ."
Homet talks a tough game. She talks power and money and she knows that women have used neither well on their own behalf in the past. "If you do something for me, I'll do something for you," she says. "You just don't sit back and volunteer." She talks about trade-offs in Congress and how women must start doing "the things men have been doing in those cigar-filled rooms."
"The power," she told the rally, "is ours to have, but it doesn't come to the timid, uninvolved or uncommitted."
Abzug, Mink and Brathwaite Burke have founded an organization to give a voice to women who are not members of the women's movement, who are not members of any organizations, but who are concerned, and angry and who are finally being forced to learn about how corporate power is affecting the economy.
They have founded the organization and Homet may have the answer for my neighbor who walked away saying, "but what can you do about it?"