President Reagan yesterday agreed to support changes in 112 federal laws that discriminate against women, but decided to oppose 12 other changes and study another six.
The Justice Department acknowledged that most of the changes Reagan approved are "inconsequential" and that the ones he opposed or set aside for study are more substantial.
Reagan's actions came at a meeting of the Cabinet Council on Legal Policy, chaired by Attorney General William French Smith. Reagan had ordered the session to show his commitment to a 2 1/2-year-old program to rid federal law of gender discrimination.
A former Justice Department aide, Barbara Honegger, had charged last month that the president was not seriously supporting his 1980 campaign pledge to eliminate gender discrimination from the law, instead of supporting the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. She said the program had become "a sham."
Honegger had worked on a project aimed at identifying areas of gender discrimination in federal law. Its report was the basis for the Justice Department recommendation to the president at yesterday's meeting.
After the meeting, William Bradford Reynolds, assistant attorney general for civil rights, told reporters that the changes could be described as "cosmetic."
"These are not substantial changes," he said.
Honegger, who has resigned from the Justice Department, said yesterday that the president's decisions are the "proof in the pudding" that her charges were true.
"Nothing has been corrected that is of any importance or that in any way satisfies the president's promise to take actions that would remove the need for an equal rights amendment," Honegger said. "This is a shadow game he is playing while potentially important changes go undone and laws to ensure equal treatment of women go unenforced."
Among the changes recommended by the Justice Department but rejected by the president were proposals to allow military colleges to require women to participate in military training, to eliminate preference for women in rules for separation from military duty or transfer to the retired reserve and to eliminate a requirement that a woman head the Labor Department's Women's Bureau.
Reagan has long objected to allowing women any military combat role, although women's groups have argued that many combat roles can be performed by women and would afford them a greater opportunity for attaining high rank.
Among the changes supported by the president are proposals to extend commissary privileges to the widows of members of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Uniformed Services and to provide for burial in national cemeteries of the husbands of commissioned officers, not just wives, as under current law.
Among the recommendations put off for further study was one dealing with a requirement in the Foreign Relations Assistance Act that $10 million be spent each year to "increase the productivity and income-earning capacity" of women in developing countries.
Reynolds, in the White House briefing, said he could not say which of the changes agreed to by the president would have significant impact.
But representatives of some women's groups said none was significant.
"Most of the changes he has agreed to are meaningless exercises like changing widow to spouses in laws," said Pat Reuss, legislative director of the Women's Equity Action League. "The man is playing tuba on the sun deck while the Titanic is sinking. He doesn't understand the problem he has with women or he thinks he can fool someone with this performance."
"It is an incredible indication of his disregard for women's needs," said Judy Goldsmith, president of the National Organization for Women. "It is either arrogance or ignorance. By no means is it a substitute for the Equal Rights Amendment as a remedy for discrimination against women in this nation."