The leaders of the world's superpowers today found themselves having to respond to comments made by White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan about women's lack of interest in and knowledge of world affairs that appeared in print in Washington Monday but took nearly two days to reach the Geneva summit.
"I don't think that he meant for it to be interpreted in that way at all," President Reagan said when asked by reporters if he agreed with Regan's comment that "they're women not going to understand throw weights, or what is happening in Afghanistan or what is happening in human rights."
Regan made his comments in an interview with The Washington Post for a story on Nancy Reagan's role as stateswoman. The story appeared in the Monday paper.
"He was simply adding to that interest that they also had an interest in children and a human touch," Reagan said during a photo opportunity before the beginning of the day's second round of meetings with Gorbachev. "I think that I know his views on the entire subject better than most," the president added.
Gorbachev, who stood next to Reagan, was then asked the same question. The general secretary looked wary and somewhat baffled by a Russian interpreter's version of the question and turned to an American interpreter for another try.
"My view is that both men and women in the United States and the Soviet Union, all over the world, are interested in having peace for themselves," Gorbachev answered, "and being sure that peace would be kept stable and lasting for the future, and for that they are interested in the reduction of countless weapons that we have. And they are interested in having this reduction, therefore, these matters are in the center of my discussions with the president."
In Regan's interview remarks, after saying women would not understand the issues raised at the summit, he continued, "Some women will, but most women -- believe me, your readers for the most part if you took a poll -- would rather read the human-interest stuff on what happened."
The White House said: "Mr. Regan meant nothing derogatory by these remarks and regrets if they were taken to be offensive."
Regan also said he expected Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev would not discuss substantive issues addressed during the summit when they met here. The two women would "build bridges, talking as the wives of the two leaders as to how things could be done mutually." They might talk about "drugs and other common problems that affect people of both countries," he said. Nancy Reagan "doesn't get into throw weights or warheads or methods of transporting these warheads."
When asked if she thought women understand the serious issues at the summit, Nancy Reagan said, "I'm sure they do."
In Washington, Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women, said she "was glad to learn the president took Bonzo to Geneva with him."
["It's hard not to laugh," said Irene Natividad, chair of the National Women's Political Caucus." "All the gender gap polls in '84 showed that peace was the number one women's issue." She said Regan's comment is typical of an administration that she said believes "only white men are entitled to having an opinion about the key issues of our time."]
Regan has refused to comment on the subject. Regan's comments, which did not reach Geneva until Monday's Post arrived here late yesterday, have irritated women gathered in this city in support of Reagan's policies and outraged women who are here to protest administration policies. "Regan's statement was a mistake," said one administration official. "The women who have come over here for our country aren't here for fluff but for issues."
Regan has had a difficult year as chief of staff, and the latest gaffe may undermine his standing at the White House. But the president dismissed the issue when asked about it yesterday and seemed to express confidence in Regan. At the same time, Regan faces other potentially more troublesome budget and tax issues when the president returns from Geneva.
The administration official pointed out that most of the people in Geneva in support of the president's policies are women. Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly led a delegation of more than 30 women to Geneva to express what she called "grass-roots support for SDI."
When told of the remarks, Schlafly said, "I think we do understand the issues, and that's why we're here." If she sees Regan, she said, "I would say, 'I hope you were misquoted.' "
Former congresswoman Bella Abzug came to Geneva with a coalition of 35 women called Women for a Meaningful Summit, which called on Reagan and Gorbachev to end the arms race. "It's an anachronism," she said of Regan's remarks. "Considering the fact that 35 women here representing 200 organizations include people like myself, a former congresswoman, involved in the international area, it doesn't make sense.