President Reagan today held out an olive branch to women voters, promising to speed up the administration's review of sex discrimination in federal law and vowing to enforce the laws that safeguard women's rights.
In a speech to the Republican Women's Leadership Forum here, Reagan sought to respond to the charge of Barbara Honegger, the former Justice Department consultant on discrimination against women who resigned in protest this week, that he had "reneged" on his commitment to women and stalled a review of federal laws for sex discrimination.
Without mentioning Honegger, the president said:
"There are laws already on the books to safeguard the rights of women. Those laws must be enforced. Some must be strengthened. I think it's time to cut through the fog of demagoguery that surrounds this whole issue. All of us are interested in one goal: ensuring legal equity for women."
He announced that he had directed the Justice Department and the Cabinet Council on Legal Policy, a White House unit, to "accelerate" their review of federal laws and "have specific recommendations on my desk for discussion immediately upon my return to Washington." Reagan did not say what would happen after that discussion.
A White House official said that Reagan has expressed concern about Honegger's charge that the review of federal laws has been delayed. The official said Reagan wanted to accelerate it and make clear that his intentions are to help women fight discrimination.
Reagan, winding up a week of campaign activity that has been overshadowed by Honegger's charges and the national attention they stirred, was greeted here by hundreds of protesters.
Some represented the National Organization for Women, holding a banner that said, "No More Economic Rape." A counterdemonstration included a placard saying, "The women in NOW aren't women at all."
Betty Heitman, co-chairman of the Republican National Committee, introduced Reagan by saying, "The president is taking some pretty unfair criticisms today." Reagan, joined by his wife, Nancy, and his daughter, Maureen, was frequently applauded and cheered by the 400 women who waved red handkerchiefs to show approval.
In his speech, Reagan noted that he had initiated the effort to root out sex discrimination in federal laws. Honegger had labeled this project--Reagan's alternative to the Equal Rights Amendment--a "sham."
Addressing the partisan GOP audience, Reagan said of the gender review effort, "Contrary to what you might have heard or read, that process is going forward."
He noted that he had received the third of four quarterly reports on the effort and had endorsed a bill sponsored by Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) changing gender references in some existing laws.
Responding to Honegger's complaint that his initiative to comb state laws for gender discrimination had also been delayed, Reagan said the federal government cannot dictate to the states.
" . . . But, if the states are not moving fast enough, you who live in the states can help. Let the state know, let us know where we can make faster progress," he said.
Reagan's speech today, on the 63rd anniversary of women's suffrage, the date the 19th Amendment was added to the Constitution, struck a tone that was both defensive and conciliatory.
He read a list of actions the administration has taken to help women, including strengthening the federal child support program, targeting women for the new job training program, extending flexible work hours for federal employes and tax relief for all women. Reagan additionally noted the top posts to which he has named women.
But he also sought to grapple with the gender gap as reflected in polls that show women giving him lower approval ratings than do men in the context of larger economic and foreign policy issues.
This reflects White House survey data that shows the so-called women's equity issues, such as the Equal Rights Amendment, are only a secondary reason why Reagan gets less favorable ratings from women than from men. More important and politically potent issues are the economic recovery and foreign policy questions of war and peace, according to the administration's analysis.
"Women are interested in the very same issues that interest men--those that affect the peace and prosperity of the nation," Reagan said.
On "prosperity," he claimed, "The cumulative effect of all our economic effort is now being felt. As they say down at Cape Canaveral, we have lift-off.
"What we're seeking for women is what we're seeking for all Americans," he added, "economic opportunity and the economic security associated with a sustained recovery, the security to plan for the future."
On "peace," the president boasted that his administration has restored morale and discipline to the military and modernized equipment.
"What this means is that all those sons and daughters who wear America's uniform are safer today than they were three years ago, and so are the people of this country," he said.
Reagan blamed partisan Democrats for his gender-gap difficulties.
"Indeed, in last year's election, it was apparent that some who talk the loudest in behalf of women's equality only extend their advocacy to women candidates if they are Democrats," he said, pointing to the defeat of Rep. Millicent Fenwick in her New Jersey Senate bid last year. NOW did not support her, but the National Women's Political Caucus endorsed her.
Reagan also said that economic recovery will do more for women "than if all the promises of the Democratic presidential candidates were enacted into law."
He ad-libbed that "The truth of it is that not any one of them could get all of them enacted because they have made so many promises they'd conflict."
The president also sought to counter an impression he may have created recently that his views about women are those of an earlier generation.
In an appearance before another women's group last month, Reagan talked about "women's place," and made an awkward joke to the effect that if it weren't for women, men would still be wearing "skin suits."
Today, Reagan took a different approach.
"Women in the 1980s are a diverse majority with varied interests and varied futures. Some seek to start their own businesses. Some seek to advance in their chosen careers. Some seek to focus on the home and family. Some seek political office. And some women seek to do all these things."