ONE OF THE THINGS that happens when you don't clean off your desk before the holidays is that you return to a desk full of press releases and reports that came in the mail in December and got set aside to be read later. Having now performed the annual rite of cleaning and reading, my first conclusion of the year is that this is not, generally speaking, going to be a good year to be a woman.
From Catholic University came news of yet another study on the "feminization of poverty," this one conducted by Diana Pearce, research director for the university's Center for National Policy Review, and Hariette McAdoo of Howard University. The study cites census figures that show two out of every three poor adults are women. Pearce blames this on the fact that women carry the larger share of child rearing and have more limited opportunities in the work force than men do. Neither seems likely to change.
From Charlottesville, Va., came news of a study conducted by Mary Jo Fields of the University of Virginia's Institute of Government. She found that women workers in Virginia's state and local governments are concentrated in lower-ranking and lower-paying jobs. No big surprise there, and while there has been a tiny bit of progress since 1977, Fields concludes that women are "in vulnerable positions, in part because of their recent entry into some occupational areas. Economic downturns and layoffs . . . will have a disproportionately larger effect on women than men."
The economic status of American women substantially is worse than that of men. Short of an economic miracle, the Reagan administration offers little to narrow the gap. Health and social welfare programs, which have a generally greater effect on women and children, again are being targeted for cutbacks at the same time the administration is eroding affirmative action requirements that might help needy women get jobs.
There is some good news, however. The policies of the Reagan administration and of conservatives in Congress toward American women have provoked a potentially significant change in the Congresswomen's Caucus. It has voted to admit men, and 57 congressmen have joined since invitations were extended in mid-November. "All men were not invited to join," says caucus cochairwoman Patricia Schroeder (D.-Col.). "It was just those who had good voting records" as rated by the National Women's Political Caucus.
"Women's rights are under a lot of fire," Schroeder says. "We have not gotten the cooperation out of the White House we have in previous administrations. Top administration officials in the past have come up to meet with us, from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the head of CIA and everyone else. We've been able to sit around and talk about affirmative action and good programs they have affecting women."
This year, she says, the only administration officials willing to meet with the caucus were Richard S. Schweiker, secretary of Health and Human Services, and John A. Svahn, commissioner of social security. She says that the entre to the White House that the congresswomen had through Rosalynn Carter and presidential adviser Sarah Weddington no longer exists.
"We sat down and said what in the world are we going to do? Women's rights are losing right and left and people need to know about it." The 10 caucus members decided to print a newsletter and raised their dues to $2,000 a year to help pay for it. Then, they voted to admit men. "We will be able to be much more vigorous if we have males who are like-thinking," says Schroeder. This could be particularly important, she says, at the committee level.
"It's very helpful to have two or three other colleagues there who are very well versed, so you are not carrying all the water, all the time on every issue. I really wish we had done it from the very beginning," she says.
By enlisting the support of men, the caucus is providing political leadership for the trend away from the sexual politics of the 70s, which seemed at times to pit women against men. At the same time, by opening and strengthening the caucus, the congresswomen are giving membership in it a chance to be a factor in the next congressional elections.
One of the lessons of the recent elections in Virginia, a traditionally conservative state, is that there is a women's vote. It helped elect a Democratic governor and helped unseat conservative legislators. National polls are also showing differences in the way men and women think politically, with women showing a greater preference for the Democratic party and greater dissatisfaction with President Reagan.
The overwhelming number of new caucus members are Democrats. Four Republican congresswomen elected last November declined to join the caucus, although cochair Rep. Margaret Heckler of Massachusetts and Rep. Olympia Snowe of Maine, both caucus members, are Republicans.
Membership in the congresswomen's caucus, now open to all whose records reflect a commitment to bettering the status of American women, will help voters who share that goal know who in Congress is with them, and who is not.