Where else but in America can a substitute teacher from Peoria become one of the highest paid women in the Reagan administration?
This is precisely what has happened with the appointment of Rosemary Thomson as executive director of the National Advisory Council on Women's Educational Programs. But Thomson, who will earn $57,000 a year as the senior staff person advising Congress and the president on equity for women in education, is not just a substitute teacher. She is, according to her resume, a supporter of Ronald Reagan, a longtime activist in conservative women's causes and the author of two books, one of which, it turns out, was published by a Christian publishing house and the other by herself. She also has been chairman since 1975 of Eagle Forum, a right-wing organization founded by Phyllis Schlafly, which has militated against the Equal Rights Amendment and what Schlafly calls "the libbers," and has lately gotten involved in book banning.
While the Far Right, which has been lobbying on and off the airwaves for administration jobs, ought to be delighted to see yet another activist off the political unemployment rolls, leaders of organizations that have worked to promote equity for women in education see this as nothing less than putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop.
It is, at best, peculiar politics for an administration that is trailing badly with women voters in an election year.
The Advisory Council on Women's Educational Programs, and the Women's Educational Equity Act program, were created by Congress to further equality for women in education. WEEA has come under virulent attack from the New Right and was targeted for abolition in Reagan's budget last year. Congress rescued it, but the administration is again requesting no money. Holly Knox, executive director of the Project on Equal Education Rights, calls Thomson's appointment "the most direct subversion of the law" other than killing the program.
"It's not just a matter of somebody coming in with different political views," Knox said. "This woman represents an organization which is opposed to the very purpose of what this advisory council is supposed to do."
Dr. Bernice Sandler, who was appointed to the advisory council by both Presidents Ford and Carter and was its first chair, warned that the advisory board would no longer be independent, with its executive director beholden to the White House for her job. She was also critical of the way Joy Simonson, the panel's highly respected executive director, was fired.
Simonson says the Reagan-appointed panel met for the first time Monday and one of its first acts was to remove job protections for the executive director. Then it promptly voted to fire her. During a recess, Simonson said, she was told a candidate for her job had shown up to be interviewed by the "search committee." It was the first she had heard of a search committee, which, it turns out, was headed by a woman who is the head of Ohio's Eagle Forum.
"The significant thing is not the fact that a holdover employe was bounced . . . in an abrupt, crude way," Simonson says. "The significance is that it was so preplanned and from the White House and not a spontaneous decision of the advisory council members. The most important thing a council can do is choose a staff director. That they chose an Eagle Forum representative seems to be the antithesis of what the women's equity act and the council were set up for."
Thomson says one of her goals is to get school counselors to channel students into subjects that will lead to jobs. "I call that improving the academics for both men and women." While this makes sense, it has little to do with equity issues that have looked, for example, at how women are treated in sports programs and in textbooks, and the special problems that handicapped female students encounter.
Educational equity can improve the ability of tomorrow's generation of mothers to be able to support their families. Why it has become such a target for the New Right is something that probably only New Right fund-raisers know for sure. But clearly the Reagan administration is willing to hand over one of the few federal programs that assist women to people who have limited experience in the field and who have been closely associated with movements whose vision of tomorrow is a vision of the past.
Thomson's claim to fame is that she suggested the banner "Reagan Plays Well in Peoria." It was a clever idea at the time. But Reagan may find in this election year that Peoria is one of the few places her appointment plays well.