Jill Ruckelshaus, the former special assistant to President Ford, likes to tell people about her earliest lesson in ballroom dancing and politics: "In my first class, I put my hand on my partner's shoulder and realized I was going to spend the rest of my life dancing backward.
"Now I realize that this was perfect training for becoming a Republican feminist."
When Ruckelshaus tells this to "her own kind," a knowing chuckle spreads across the room. The fact is that Republican feminists have done the longest running fandango on record just to stay in place. In 1976, they fought mightily to keep the ERA on the platform and abortion off of it. And 1980 has looked like more of the same.
Still, a funny thing happened in the Massachusetts primary and now, a bona-fide, genuine, honest-to-Abe feminist candidate is in the running for the Republican nomination.
It is no secret that a solid portion of the John Anderson vote here came from independent or usually Democratic women who liked Anderson's straight talk on women's rights.
"He is simon-pure on the issues," says Susan McLane, a state senator in New Hampshire. McLane is head of the national Republican Women's Task Force and a waffling Bush supporter who adds, "Anderson is the perfect feminist candidate."
What does Simon Pure say? Well, he is in favor of the ERA, against recession, pro-choice, against the marriage tax and in favor of Social Security for homemakers, displaced homemaker rights and (breathe, two, three, four) federally funded child care. What's more, he says all these things out loud.
He told the task force: "I would use the White House as a 'bully pulpit' from which to attempt to secure ratification of the ERA." He even signed a National Abortion Rights Action League fund-raising letter. As they once said of Barry Goldwater, "My God, I think he's actually running as John Anderson."
But the musical question in the Anderson camp is whether the positions that make him attractive to the moderates, who could elect him, keep him out of tune with the Republicans, who have to nominate him. And this is true for his stand on women's issues.
About a month ago, I couldn't resist saying that Anderson had a corner on the market of the Republican feminist vote . . . both of them. Anderson answered, saying that the same longings for change and growth "beat in the breast of Republican women." But is there really a market to corner?
It is true that Republican Party women, like Democratic women, are pushier than they used to be. They want a voice, a place, a role in the party. The most conservative, the most anti-ERA and even some right-to-life groups have fought the same fight against letting men run their show and make their policy.
But politically, the female GOP regulars are as conservative as their male counterparts. It was Republican women who applauded the candidates when they talke about more military spending and sat on their hands when Anderson talked about the starving children in Cambodia.
Just to get to the Republican convention, feminists have been supporting candidates who are less than simon-pure. Mary Stanley of California, another task force leader, is running for delegate on a Reagan slate. McLane herself has been a Bush supporter and possible Bush delegate on the somebody-has-to-stop-Reagan theory of practical politics.
McLane is very aware of the resistance to women's issues at the hard core of the party. "We are trying to push, and meeting with some resistance." So, the Republican Women's Task Force, which lists 9,000 elected and/or active women in its ranks, has focused on keeping the party platform from pirouetting to the right.
The results have been mixed. The task force was prevented from even speaking in Washington and Indiana, and booed in Florida. The most effective feminist speaker so far has been Maureen Reagan in California, disagreeing with Daddy.
But a strong or even moderately strong Anderson vote could give women's issues some clout in the party and especially at the convention.
Even now, Anderson has changed the normal tune of Republican politics. Says McLane, "The question has always been: do you compromise your values and stay in the political mainstream, or do you join the kamikaze effort? The exciting thing is that John Anderson is not a kamikaze."
For the moment, Anderson is high on the Republican dance card, and he isn't shuffling backward.