THE RECEPTION for President Carter's new advisory committee for women had been going on for more than an hour at the vice president's home Wednesday night when a group of women on the committee gathered in a small sitting room for an impromptu round of speeches. Ann Richards, commissioner of Travis County, Texas, looked around the room when it came her turn and addressed the gathering of middle-aged women with a broad grin and a drawl: "Well, girls . . ."
She corrected herself quickly but the faux-pas had been made. There were no men in the room and the women in the room weren't exactly the heavy-hitting feminists who had been on the committee before Bella Abzug was fired by President Carter last January. Gone were such people as Mildred Jeffrey, head of the National Women's Political Caucus, Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women, and Bella Abzug In the crowd that gathered at the Mondales,' you could say girls and get away with it.
Clearly, the committee has changed. Mondale, in introducing Lynda Johnson Robb as the new chair-person of the committee, emphasized her experience in civic and political affairs on the state and national levels and he emphasized her experience as a "homemaker and a mother." Robb, sporting a stiff floral bonnet and a red, white and blue outfit, looked every bit the homemaker.
She spoke of the American tradition of volunteering, of her father's efforts to get women to serve in government, and of how she wants to represent "those women who do not belong to anything in the women's movement." Later, she spoke vaguely of her interest in health and welfare issues and the ERA amendment. "I've been assured by the president we will be independent," she said. "I'm sure there are things we'll agree on and things we don't agree on."
Maybe, maybe not. There is nothing to suggest in the committee's membership that there are secret boat rockers, great innovative thinkers, or proponents of radical change. If anything, this committee looks safe.
It looks like pink ribbon committee, with no political or economic clout, no strong ties with industry. It is instead dominated by people representing religious women's groups, ethnic women's organizations, and such traditional groups as the Future Homemakers and the American Association of University Women.
Odessa Komer, vice president of the International Union of Auto Workers, remained on the committee following Abzug's firing. So did Elizabeth Duncan Koontz, chairwoman of the Nationl Commission on Working Women and a former assistant secretary of Labor. But this is the extent of the labor expertise on a committee that is suppose to be advising the president of a country where more than half the women work.
The single most profound economic change going on over the past decade has been the entry of women into the work force and the Urban Institute recently predicted that change will continue with women going into the work force at the rate of a million people a year until 1990.
This movement of women out of the home and into the work force and all of the problems that shift is causing is what has helped generate the need for a presidential advisory committee on women.
But where is the representation on the committee fo industries dominated by women? Where are the Communications Workers of America, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union representatives? Where are the executives of the phone companies and textile companies that employ million of women and who need to address such issues as day care an flexitime in their corporations? Where are the legal representatives who can advise on how to use the courts and the law to create a fair and equal society, and where are the experts on benefit payments, such as former Sen. Martha Griffiths? Where are the economists and sociologists who can define and predict and advise on what social changes are coming and how we can prepare for them?
Abigail Havens, special assistant to White Hosue special assistant Sarah Weddington, whose office put together the new committee, said there were a lot of people from the South and California left on the panel after the resignations. She said that she and Weddington sought to get representatives from other parts of the country on the new committee which is now limited to 30 instead of 40 members.
"We are looking for a woman attorney who is strong in the area of sex discrimination," she said. "Obviously we haven't done that yet. Another area that we have not found but Sarah is interested in finding someone with expertise or experience in welfare." And, she says, they are looking for an economist and looking for "another man."
Another man to join Tennessee Lawyer Richard Rossie, would bring the total number of men on the committee to two. That virtually guarantees that the panel will consist mostly of well-intentioned women with little or no established political or economic ties in which to get those intentions translated into economic and social realities.
It is a fact of life that men still control and possess the technical expertise, the political savvy, the corporate clout that causes change. You don't find that clout in women's religious groups and don't find it in the Future Homemakers of America and you don't find it in the American Association of University Women. You find it in General Motors and the Bell Telephone Company.
Bella Abzug did not personally possess any of that clout but she understood who did have it. She understood that when you have representatives from those corporations sitting down to talk about promoting equality for women, you're not sitting down for a chat with the girls.