The White House said yesterday that President Reagan's chief liaison to women will resign soon, prompting speculation among women's groups that the administration is trying to put a better face on its policies toward them.
Dee Jepsen, who like Reagan opposes the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion, said she is resigning to work in the reelection campaign of her husband, Sen. Roger W. Jepsen (R-Iowa). She said her departure has nothing to do with the administration's effort to improve its standing among women.
The White House also moved yesterday to minimize controversy over the resignation last week of Justice Department official Barbara Honegger, who helped draft portions of Reagan's policies about women. A spokesman announced that Reagan's deputy chief of staff, Michael K. Deaver, will telephone Honegger after Labor Day to "talk about her views."
Honegger became an instant celebrity last month when she denounced as a "sham" Reagan's efforts to eliminate sex discrimination in federal and state laws. She later offered to return to the administration to supervise the effort to change state laws if Reagan would change his policies toward women, particularly his opposition to the ERA.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Honegger said she believes she could suggest to Reagan "solutions that will make him a national hero." She said the president's "instincts are excellent, but his advice is abominable--at the Meese-Baker-Deaver level."
Honegger was referring to the president's top aides, White House counselor Edwin Meese III, chief of staff James A. Baker III and Deaver. Some White House aides have advised Reagan to rehire Honegger in another post, but a spokesman said yesterday there is no plan to do so.
Honegger expressed surprise at news of Jepsen's planned departure and declined comment on whether she would accept Jepsen's job if offered it. Describing herself as a "liberal Republican," she said she urged Reagan in a letter sent after her resignation to support the ERA and to make the birthday of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday.
Reacting to news of Jepsen's planned exit, leaders of several women's groups said they do not view her departure as a signal of changes in Reagan's policies, although "one can always hope," in the words of Gail Melich of the National Women's Political Caucus.
"Her departure is not going to help Ronald Reagan with mainstream women," said Pat Reuss of the Women's Equity Action League, a group that focuses on economic issues. "Half of them don't know she's there because she hasn't reached out to them or their concerns. The other half perceive her, fairly or not, as married to one of the key co-sponsors of the Family Protection Act, and a spokesperson of a right-wing, conservative point of view who doesn't represent them."
"It is crisis time in the White House as far as the president's relationship to women is concerned," said Judy Goldsmith of the National Organization for Women, the nation's largest women's rights group with 250,000 members.
Jepsen said she does not expect Reagan to change his policies in response to the uproar over the "gender gap," which shows that women as a group oppose Reagan's positions on a wide range of issues. Jepsen, who took office in August, 1982, provoked a controversy by calling the gender gap a "myth," and by saying that NOW and other activist groups do not represent most American women.
Jepsen's liaison responsibilities were recently broadened to include rural and religious groups as well as women. She spent much of her time promoting Reagan's programs with groups ranging from the League of Women Voters to the Women's Relief Society of the Mormon Church and the women's auxiliary of the American Legion.
"I still think the gender gap is overrated," Jepsen said in an interview. "The Democrats ought to be concerned about the fact that they have a gender gap with men . . . . I've said before and I'll say again that it's been an honor and a privilege to serve a president who is one of the most compassionate, caring, fair human beings I know."
Jepsen said she had told Reagan when she took her post a year ago that she would resign to help her husband's campaign when he began seeking reelection. Jepsen is expected to face a serious challenge from Rep. Thomas R. Harkin (D-Iowa), who recently formed a committee to examine his prospects.
"My husband has been very supportive of me and the things I want to do," said Dee Jepsen, who is considered her husband's chief adviser and who worked as a volunteer on his staff before taking the White House job.
"Now I have a chance to be supportive of him."
Staff writer David Hoffman contributed to this report.