President Reagan made a special trip to a hotel here yesterday to apologize to a women's group that was turned away from a planned White House tour on Tuesday, but he apparently added insult to injury in an ad-libbed remark about "recognition of women's place."
The White House has labored for months to assure women's groups of its commitment to women's rights, and Reagan aides were horrified when they learned that 1,200 members of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs showed up at the White House Tuesday only to be told that their tour had been canceled without notice.
A contrite Reagan went to the Sheraton Washington hotel yesterday morning on a damage-limiting mission. But he may have failed.
"It's not enough just to say I'm sorry, so I intend to do penance," Reagan said. "And we have been doing a number of things here with regard to the thing of great interest to you, and that is the recognition of women's place. I want you to know I've always recognized it, because I happen to be one who believes that if it wasn't for women, us men would still be walking around in skin suits carrying clubs."
Reagan's comment was greeted with silence from a crowd that only moments earlier had sprung to its feet in appreciation of his taking time to attend and speak.
"He was addressing a group of businesswomen," said an unamused Polly Madenwald, the federation's national president and a Republican from Oregon. "My indication, from what he said, was he felt the reason women are here is to create families and not necessarily do anything other than that."
Later, she added: "Yesterday's action and today's apology is another example of this administration playing catch-up. It's an example of this administration's insensitivity to women and it is an example of this administration's refusal to take us seriously."
Reagan ad-libbed his speech after discarding a text prepared for him on the controversy over replenishment of the International Monetary Fund, as well as on women's issues. That speech was written by White House aides Tuesday night but, according to administration officials, Reagan decided yesterday morning that he would be "using the women" if he made a speech instead of simply apologizing.
Some women present yesterday seemed pleased that Reagan had decided to address their group, and they did not seem upset at the foul-up at the White House.
Mary Cassidy, a Wisconsin schoolteacher who was left standing outside the White House Tuesday, said Reagan was "gracious" to speak to the group and described the tour cancellation as only a "sad situation."
Reagan won his only applause from the women when he mentioned having just received a government study on sex discrimination in the law. But White House spokesman Larry Speakes told reporters later that the president was incorrect when he said the Justice Department had "just delivered the results" of the study.
What he had received was the third quarterly report of the Task Force on Legal Equity for Women, whose final report is not due until next April. Women's groups have complained that Justice is dragging its feet on the study, especially since Reagan has held its review of the laws as an alternative to the Equal Rights Amendment.
Women's groups have complained about other claims Reagan has made recently. He has taken credit for such steps as reducing the marriage penalty in the tax code, increasing the child care credit and liberalizing the rules concerning Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs).
"Ronald Reagan does not get credit for any of those things because he did not support them until they became law," said Patricia Reuss, legislative director of the Women's Equity Action League. "Those things came about as a result of bipartisan efforts in Congress."
Meanwhile, White House deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver, who heads a special group on women's issues, met yesterday with Republican congresswomen. A participant said the meeting centered on improving child-care and pension rules for women and on IRA regulations. No decisions were made.