JOANNE HOWES, a deputy manager in the Kennedy campaign, stood at the podium last Friday and summarized a trenchant 16-page policy paper, telling in ringing terms everything President Carter hasn't done and everything that a President Kennedy would. It sounded so good.
There was all the right rhetoric for a liberal presidential candidate who has decided women's issues are going to influence voters in the campaign. Kennedy and his people have obviously been paying attention. There was the firm commitment to work the White House phones and his cabinet and himself on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment and the pointed jab at Carter for making a few phone calls on behalf of ERA and then working the phones and the cabinet to death during the Florida and Iowa caucuses.
Kennedy pledged to redress inequities in social security and pension laws and in private health insurance laws, to ensure access of women to small business loans, to tackle health needs peculiar to women. There was the pledge to attack the earnings gap -- women now earn 59 cents for every dollar earned by men -- to enforce anti-discrimination measured in jobs and education, to increase the availability of part-time and flextime jobs, to end sex stereotyping in federal job classifications, and to increase federal involvement in vocational and child-care programs.
Kennedy's paper is the second to be brought forth by a candidate who has clearly been influenced by the women's movement. Republican candidate John Anderson issued his position paper early in his campaign, and has won the support of such established feminists as Catherine East "solely," she says, "because I think he has the best position on women's rights."
The position papers address most of the important and complex issues women's organizations have been talking about for the past several years. The Anderson paper pledges to work on inequities in the social security system and a homemaker retirement bill. And he pledges to use women's networks in identifying and attracting top-level women to government, particularly into the judiciary. "Women's perspective has been lacking in the administration of justice," he said.
The Kennedy paper embraces the emerging concept of equal pay for work of equal value -- a concept favored by a number of women's groups as an approach that will narrow the earnings gap. Why, as Howes put it, should a maintenance worker earn more than a secretary?
But while the Kennedy paper sets forth his program to secure equality and justice for women, it also sets forth a grim indictment of the economic and social status of women today.
Consider some of the statistics it cites: Women earned 63 cents for every dollar men earned in 1971; now it's 59 cents. The median income of women aged 65 is $2,813. The female college graduate earns less than the male high school dropout. Only 1.4 percent of working women are in skilled trades, only 5 percent in management.
As of 1978, some 53 percent of all mothers with children under 18 were working outside the home, 28 million children have working mothers, and 8.5 million households are headed by women.
Some 2 million school-age children between 7 and 13 are left alone and unsupervised after school. At least 20,000 children under 6 are left alone while the parents work. There are 3,000 children on a waiting list for a federally aided child-care center in Newark, N.J., and 24,000 eligible children competing for 8,000 places in a center in Colorado.
Three-quarters of all elderly, unmarried, widowed or divorced women live in poverty. The average social security benefit for widows is $228 a month. "If the social security system provides homemakers and working women with little protection in their old age, private pension plans generally provide even less," Kennedy states. "Most pension plans require a person to work in the same place for 10 years before the pension will vest, with limited breaks in service. Women who work for less than that period, or who take a substantial break to bear children and raise a family, later find themselves with no pension protection. . . ."
And, finally, consider the state of women in politics: women represent 53 percent of the nation's registered voters, yet hold only 9 percent of the 7,500 seats in state legislatures, only one of the 100 seats in the Senate, only 16 of the 435 seats in the House. Only 5 percent of federal judges are women.
Catherine East, whose interest in the feminist movement dates back to 1961 when she was executive secretary of president John F. Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women, says she believes that this year the women's vote on women's issues will have "considerable impact" on the campaigns. Pointing to Anderson's liberal position on abortion, she says, "This is the first campaign since I've been in the women's movement where we clearly had a candidate that was better than the others." Anderson, she says, "has definitely made women's issues a central part of his campaign, but he's having a hard time getting the press to cover it. He thinks there's a women's vote."
Howes says she is "getting a sense that women's issues are important," that they are part of what women are looking at when they listen to candidates. "I find it even in just looking at audiences. I see nods on their faces."
She says Kennedy has been "out talking about these issues, not when he just talks to women, but to men and women." As he has campaigned, he has become "even more convinced" of their importance.
Howes described the Kennedy paper on women and its release as similar to the way the campaign addressed the energy issue. It's encouraging that a major candidate puts this kind of emphasis on women's issues. What's discouraging when you read the position paper is the realization that there is still so much to be done, and the foreboding that the austere, tense decade of the '80s will not be the time to do it.