Tight budgets, newly elected conservatives and a plethora of special interest groups vying for the same government funds are making it more difficult for women's issues to stay in the political arena.
That was the message of speakers at a legislative briefing Saturday sponsored by Prince George's County women's organizations.
"I wish I could bring you better news today on the government's attitude toward women's issues," said Edna McLellan, representing hospitalized Rep. Gladys Spellman of Prince George's. "But realistically, the future does not look bright." she urged the 76 registered participants, five of them men, to support these issues. "This is no time for us to sit by and watch two decades of achievement to go down the conservative drain."
McLellan spoke at length about the continuing struggle to enact a bill that would help establish "spouse abuse shelters all across the country." It was "destined to be filibustered -- talked to death -- on the Senate floor, so backers wisely didn't even bring it up for a vote," she said. The bill will be reintroduced in the House in a few weeks.
"The bill," McLellan said, "had become something of a cause celebre for right-wing conservatives, who claimed it would contribute to the destruction of the family. I guess their view was that 'The family who fights together must stay together.' I'm anxious to know if the Moral Majority can actually look us in the face and tell us that those women should remain in their home only to face more maiming and possible death. It's so hard to understand these kinds of morals."
In recent election of President Ronald Reagan and the fact that he has appointed only one women -- conservative Democrat Jean Kirkpatrick -- to his Cabinet is a "decided disadvantage" for women's groups, McLellan said. But the Congress-women's Causus, an ad hoc group started in 1977, is working "vigorously" to overcome conservative opposition to women's issues, she added. The caucus is concentrating its efforts on a program of legislation designed to better the economic conditions of women. The bill, which was being put in final form last week, is "designed to help women compete more successfully for jobs, promotions and the incomes they deserve," McLellan said.
Among the proposals for the bill are provisions that would end discriminatory language in federal regulations and provide tax benefits for single persons who are heads of households.
Passage will be an "uphill battle," McLellan said. "Let's fact it. The new administration feels it has a clear mandate to spend money on guns, not butter."
McLellan described Spellman's condition as "a little bit better every day." The Maryland representative is "moving and she recognizes her husband Reuben, and other members of her family . . . her doctors say it's entirely possible that she'll eventually be able to return to her duties in Congress."
The Saturday meeting, held in the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro, who sponsored by the county Commission for Women, the independent Women's Coalition and the Women's Political Caucus.
Several panelists discussed state and county government policy in general terms that did not relate directly to women's issues. Ella Ennis, reprsenting County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan, and Royal Hart, the County Council liaison official to the General Assembly, stressed that the trend toward tightening government budgets is making it difficult for local governments even to maintain existing programs.
At the state level, Sen. Tommie Broadwater Jr. (D-Prince George's), member of the Budget and Taxation Committee, discussed the limited powers that state legislators have over the budget. Once Gov. Harry Hughes submits it, "we cannot increase it" without trying to raise taxes, Broadwater said.
Advocates trying to influence legislaation were urged to begin their lobbying efforts before the budget leaves the governor's office. Del. Pauline Menes (D-Prince George's) suggested that they concentrate on the agencies that submit requests for state funds.
"To affect the budget, you must understand the budget process," Menes told the audience, most of whom represented groups concerned with women's issues. "People come in the process much too late, they come in at the legislative level and plead with us. The major cuts come from the executive level. You must encourage the agency to use funds (for specific types of programs). Know the decision-makers of a particular department, let them know your support, then let the governor know your support and then come to the legislature."
Panelists discussed effective lobbying techniques extensively. But Sol del Ande Eaton, chairwoman of the committee for minority women of the county Commission for Women, asked the panel about "The needs of people who cannot afford lobbying. I'm referring to groups who cannot afford to power, yet the need is there."
"They should come down in masses" to Annapolis, said Broadwater. He also stressed that people should register to vote.
One participant asked if panelists expect a constitutional amendment to ban abortion to be introduced into the state legislature.
"It always comes up," said Del. Kay Bienen (D-Prince George's), but it probably "is not going to pass."
Bienen also told participants that she has proposed legislation that would allow students to seek advice on drug abuse, veneral disease and alcoholism from school officials without parental consent. And she reminded the audience, "if you're paying taxes on sanitary napkins or tampons, stop. . . " She pointed out that a bill exempting the items from the sales tax was passed July 1, adding that some merchants may not be aware of the new law.
Overall reaction to the conference was positive. Several participants said too much time was spent on municipal and state concerns that did not relate directly to women's issues. But other participants said the general discussion was valuable.
"I was interested to hear" about the general issues, said Julia McGraw, member of Greenbelt Golden Age Club Inc.
"I learned a lot," she said. She added that she felt the general issues and women's issues were related. "What's good for women is good for the country," she said.