Twenty-one members of the 40-member National Advisory Committee for Women denounced President Carter yesterday for his "unwarranted dismissal" of their co-leader Bella Abzug and said they were resigning in protest.
They said Abzug was being used as "a scapegoat in an effort to suppress our independence," and said they were "especially shocked" that Carter hadn't told them during a Friday meeting at the White House that he intended to fire Abzug.
The former New York congress-woman was dismissed as co-chair-woman of the advisory committee moments after the meeting with Carter. Presidential assistant Hamilton Jordan, in a letter to Abzug, said the president believed that new leadership would improve the committee's relationship with the administration.
Carmen Delgado Votaw, the other co-chairwoman, resigned Friday night, immediately after learning of Abzug's dismissal.
The members who resigned yesterday said in a statement released at a press conference that they believe "all women and men of like mind will refuse to participate in an advisory committee in which disagreement with the president and legitimate criticism are not acceptable."
A White House statement in response to the resignations said the administration's commitment "to issues important to the women of the country is strong and permanent." The White House last night was contacting committee members who had resigned, asking them to remain on the panel, the statement said.
But one committee member said reversals were unlikely.
The administration's alienation of leaders of the nation's most powerful women's organizations, who have been active in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, could damage Carter politically, especially his 1980 re-election chances.
"No candidate running for president in 1980 is going to get away with it (women's support) as easily as they've gotten away with it before," Abzug said at yesterday's press conference.
Abzug said she found the manner of her dismissal "shocking" and "crude." She said she was called into Jordan's office shortly after she had praised the president and described the committee's first meeting with him in positive terms. Abzug said she later learned that Carter had decided before the afternoon meeting o fire her.
Among the "sins" cited against her, Abzug said, were her "confrontative posture" and in particular the committee's canceling a 15-minute meeting with Carter in November. She said she opposed the cancellation, but members "were unanimously insistent" that the time was too short.
The White House was also annoyed at the issuance of press releases detailing women's grievances against Carter economic policies before Friday's meeting. Abaug said she was absent from committee meetings where the publicized positions were adopted.
"Mr. Jordan said I should have been at the meeting," Abzug recalled. She said she told him she had pressing personal problems. "He said if you have pressing personal problems you shouldn't be chairman of the committee," Abzug quoted.
At another point in the dismissal session, which included White House counsel Robert Lipshutz, Abzug said she asked, "Hwy am I being made a scapegoat?"
She said Lipshutz became very angry and called her a liar, adding, "The next thing I know you'll be saying you were fired because you're a Jew."
According to Abzug she left Jordan's office without agreeing to resign, after suggesting they "take some time and figure out with my committee a way that we can continue to work with the administration." Jordan telephoned at her office shortly after to say he would consult the president if she refused. Abzug said it was then she learned that "all the time he knew... and the members of our committee were under the impression all was well."
Another White House gripe -- that she tried to "lecture" the president during Friday's meeting -- was denied by Abzug. She said Carter expressed dissatisfaction with the committee's relations with the White House and "I tried to explain what it is we are trying to do... that we have millions of constituents... that (women) are outside the government in every sense of the word," Abzug said. "It was explanatory and in no way a lecture."
The members who resigned yesterday said in their statement that they had "expressed concern" to Carter about the effect of his anti-inflation programs on "women and their families who are already at the bottom of the economic ladder and suffer greatly from continued discrimination."
They said they also urged Carter to take more vigorous action to make the Equal Rights Amendment a reality.
Abzug said she has never "been anything but symphathetic and somewhat complimentary" of Carter in working with him on womenhs issues.
The White House said the president feels "the committee can and will be more productive on behalf of women, and individual members on behalf of their constituency," with leadership that has "a more harmonious relationship" with the administration. *tResponse to Abzughs dismissal from women around the country has been "angry but relieved,c according to Gloria Steinem, editor of Ms. magazine and the only non-member of the advisory committee to speak at yesterday's press conference. Calls she has received indicate that now Carter "is going to have to do something for us to make up for this breach and in order to get us to vote for him," she said.
At the gathering, which began with a wake-like solemnity but took on the atmosphere of a rally, National Organization for Women spokesman Arlie Scott said the resignations show that women are "now more unified than ever."
League of Women Voters vice president Nancy Neuman said women have been "on the back burner of the administration's priorities."
The president "feels women should be seen and not heard," complained Mildred Jeffreys of the National Women's political caucus.
Piilani Desha, former head of the National Association of Business and Professional Women, said the committee's principles and purpose have been destroyed.
Abzug was questioned about reports that President Carter's adviser on women, Sarah Weddington, agreed with her dismissal. Abzug said that "raises the question as to her capacity to represent women in the White House."
The White House had no assessment yesterday of public reaction to Abzug's firing, a spokeswoman said.