The latest conflict between Ronald Reagan and the women's movement has taken on a kind of Hellzapoppin quality. There has been something absolutely dizzying in the charges and countercharges flying back and forth in the past several weeks, especially since Reagan's own political appointee, Barbara Honegger, went over the side with a resounding splash, concluding almost three years of duty in the Reagan administration.
What strikes me as odd and interesting in all this has a life utterly apart from the political argument now raging. I have no doubt that so far as the facts and documentary evidence are concerned, those charging Reagan with a failure of ardor in pursuing reforms of laws and policies that discriminate against women have the better of the argument. And even so fitful and unreliable a feminist as I have been over the years is amazed at the cloddish way some administration spokesmen have retaliated with talk of bunny suits and Munchkins and so forth. And yet, against this famously MCP background, the fact remains that the women of Ronald Reagan's Washington-- those he has appointed, many of those who have come here as the wives of his male appointees, those in his social circle and/or his family--tend to be very strong, very independent-minded, don't-tread-on-me-type women. Not all, to be sure, but lots are known for their downright cussedness. Reagan doesn't seem to object.
What's going on here? More, in my view, than a mere playing out of the fact that many women of the right--Mrs. Schlafly leaps aggressively to mind--are intense and combative about their ideological commitments. Miss Honegger herself, for instance, is being disparaged by the administration she served for what it now suggests are disreputable and disabling eccentricities. But all the unusual interests and enterprises to which it now points with alleged shock were well known to those who knew Barbara Honegger at all. And I am struck by the fact that the highly conventional Reagan political family, at least while Martin Anderson was there, seemed to have no trouble accommodating this woman with her highly unconventional way of thought.
She is surely distinctive. The Reagan women I have in mind are all different, but they do share a certain pronounced, unmousey fortitude. Faith Whittlesey, the president's White House envoy to various constituencies, is an extremely forthright, resolute woman who seems not to mind making trouble and to rather enjoy taking the heat--she in fact invites it--that comes from pressing her extremely unfashionable views on certain issues. Elizabeth Dole, wholly different in manner, style and (generally) outlook, shares this type of determination and is known for the stamina with which she presses a point of view.
There are others among Reagan's appointees. That their number is not huge seems indisputable, but that the ones who get there tend to be women who count for something, or raise plenty of hell about it, also seems plain. I thought of this during the recent outcry over Reagan's failure to name any female members to his new commission on Central America. I figure that if the commission, to which she has some ex-officio relationship, should come up with a set of findings to which Jeane Kirkpatrick objects, she, not they, will prevail. Mrs. Kirkpatrick is an enormously influential figure in this administration and a habitual winner of internal battles. She has never been accused of being gun- shy, and so far as I know the fellows don't make bunny-suit jokes about her. Which is probably wise on their part.
I know that wives are a group apart, but it does seem to me worth noting that many of the officials' wives, in the group that is close to Reagan, are women of particular strength and force of personality. Ursula Meese is an example. (She did dress up as an Easter bunny for the kids, but this is no disgrace and, to the best of my knowledge, has not yet been made a felony.) Mrs. Meese is an unambiguous, powerful arguer for projects that have ignited her special concern, chief among them American efforts that need to be made to ameliorate poverty in the black African states. Besides such friends, there is family. Both of Reagan's daughters have taken and have stuck to various public positions that are starkly and sometimes embarrassingly at odds with what their father is saying.
Whatever his political behavior is like, Reagan seems personally at home with all this. I ascribe it in part to his past. Like almost all our modern-day chief executives, Reagan himself is --I shall be bold--a "mama's boy," not in the traditional wimpish sense of the term, but rather as the product of a family in which the mother was an especially strong, sometimes leading partner. Don't ask me why, but from Sarah Delano to Miss Lillian, with only a couple of exceptions, this has been the rule in the families that have produced our presidents--a powerful female and (on occasion) a weak or mean or no-account or departed male. Truman and Johnson and Nixon had forceful mothers. Strong wives with strong views have followed in many cases, from Eleanor to Lady Bird to Rosalynn and to Nancy Reagan. Reagan infuriates many among us by insisting on putting females on a pedestal--but it is worth looking carefully at the generic female he has put there. She seems to be a pretty tough bird.
People always laugh at feminists. I am ashamed to say that I was one of those who thought it "funny" 20 years ago when May Craig pressed for the inclusion of a women's rights provision in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and who thought it "funny" and "pushy" of Sarah McClendon to be making such a fuss about getting us women reporters admitted to the Press Club. I didn't even have the wit or imagination to protest when, because I was a woman, I was denied access to the wire-service ticker in the club, an access my male predecessor had found essential. But, to use the dread term, one's consciousness can be raised. Mine has been--at least somewhat--and if there was hope for me, I think there may even be hope for Reagan. His evident ease in the presence of contentious, independent females suggests to me that contrary to what both he and his critics think, Reagan is still worth working on.