For Mary Grefe, a former president of the American Association of University Women, last year's United Nation's women's conference in Copenhagan provided a moment of stark revelation. "I left thinking I'd been thoroughly briefed by the Department of State, as indeed I had." But during the informal conversations when the subjects of war and peace and national security arose, she began, as she puts it, "to be aware of my own limitations."
Her sense that other women might be equally uninformed was reinforced at the AAUW's annual meeting, and she resolved to do something about it. Next month, under the auspices of the Committee for National Security, Grefe will chair the Women's Leadership Conference on National Security, which is being funded by Ford and Rockefeller foundation grants. According to Anne H. Cahn, the committee's executive director and a former staff member of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the conference will be "an intensive, high-level and objective educational effort," designed to engage large numbers of women in the national security debate for the first time.
The conference's advisory committee includes the presidents of Barnard, Smith, Radcliffe, Wheaton, Sarah Lawrence, Hampshire, and Hood colleges; authors Frances Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Janeway, women religious leaders, presidents of major women's organizations, and a number of women who are now in Congress or married to people who are.
"It was obvious there was this large group of citizens who were relatively uninvolved in any discussions about national security or arms control, i.e. women," says Cahn. "One of the underlying assumptions was that one reason women weren't involved was that they felt uninformed about the issues."
Among the experts scheduled to speak at the conference are Walter Slocombe, former undersecretary of defense; Rep. James Leach (R.-Iowa); Rep. Marjorie Holt (R.-Md.); Paul Warnke, the former ACDA director and chief SALT II negotiator; Richard Burt, assistant secretary of state for European affairs; Herbert Scoville Jr., a physicist who directed the early atomic weapons testing programs and who later became the CIA's deputy director for research; and Theodore Taylor, a former bomb designer who worked on the Manhattan Project. There also will be panels on defense spending and economic tradeoffs featuring such people as Alice Rivlin of the Congressional Budget Office.
"What I hope to get out of it," says Cahn, "is that the 200 to 300 women whom we expect to attend will feel sufficiently informed that they will go back to their own organizations and communities and help lead discussions and get their group involved in thinking about national security, that they will become more active participants in the national security debate and make their voices heard."
The arms control debate has been phrased for years in the technological terms of the original arms controllers, many of whom were scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, says Cahn. "They were predominantly physicists and physical scientists and they were used to looking at the world in technical terms. That had the effect of alienating a lot of nontechnical people. One of the primary purposes of this conference is to rephrase the terms of the debate away from the technical jargon into plain English."
Foreign policy and national defense traditionally have been run by men. A phenomenon of the current nuclear peace movement is that women who have come of age during the women's movement are taking on national security as an issue and are becoming effective leaders. An originator of the nuclear "freeze" idea is a woman; the leader of the movement to prevent the MX from being deployed in Utah was a woman state legislator. Women leaders such as Grefe, who came to the fore during the politicization of the women's movement, are turning their organizing skills to the issue of survival. This month's "Graduate Woman," which goes to the AAUW's 190,000 members, is devoted entirely to global security, a striking departure from past concerns.
Women leaders are taking the right approach, which is to educate themselves through such events as next month's conference. And while women may not be entirely welcomed into the national security debate, it seems only sensible to assume that we will have a better shot at getting out of the mess we're in if all of us, instead of half of us, are trying to find the way.