National Advisory Committee for Women and the ‘Friday Afternoon Massacre’
By Lenora Reese
Vol. 1, No. 5, 1979, pp. 18-20
A month ago, a random poll of the American people would probably have indicated few, if any, had ever heard of the National Advisory Committee for Women.
The 40-member committee had not publicly trumpeted its existence since a presidential executive order signed it into being last April. Informal sessions had been held and issues batted back and forth. A staff was set up in Washington, D.C., and duties assigned.
But it wasn’t until January 12, the day some are calling the “Friday afternoon massacre,” that the once obscure group got the recognition it deserved. And it came at the expense of its outspoken co-chair, Bella Abzug, who was fired by President Carter after White House officials learned of a press release critical of Carter’s economic and social policies.
Enraged over the dismissal, more than half the committee resigned. As this issue went to press, the count stood at 24 resigned, 16 remaining.
Of the eight members from the Southern states, the majority, six, including honorary chairperson Judy Carter, chose to stay on the panel, while two left. Of the three Southern Black members, two remained, and one left. Of the two men on the committee, one stayed and other resigned. (A third original male member, Lane Kirkland of the AFL-CIO, had resigned earlier over an unrelated matter.)
There was apparently no evident cohesiveness among the “Southern coalition” on the committee, and after the split, there seemed to be even less consensus of opinion on the reasons for the firing, the committee’s original purpose and its uncertain future.
Still smarting over Abzug’s dismissal in late January was Brownie Ledbetter, founding member of the Arkansas Women’s Political Caucus and state legislative chairman, a member of the Executive Committee of the Southern Regional Council, Business and Professional Women’s Clubs and Church Women United. She and Jefflyn Johnson, of Falls Church, Va., were the only two Southerners to step down.
Ledbetter, like many other feminists, believes Carter used Abzug merely as a scapegoat for the rest of the committee which he felt had gone beyond the call of duty in criticizing his position on the economy, including proposed cuts for the federal budget. Issues such as social security cutbacks and postponement of national health insurance were of vital concern to women, committee members felt, and needed to be brought to the president’s attention.
According to the committee’s guidelines, set up after the 1977 Houston International Women’s Year conference, the panel was to gather and disseminate information concerning women’s issues and advise the president on how the government would implement the National Plan of Action adopted in Houston.
The press release, which summarized a lengthy report compiled by the committee and its staff for Carter, warned the president that his “anti-inflation program will impose additional burdens upon women in increased unemployment, cutbacks in social programs, postponement of comprehensive national health insurance and deferred action on programs and addressing poverty and assistance to cities where the majority of women live.”
The release also criticized an administration proposal to increase the Defense budget by 10 percent and called on Carter to appoint a committee to investigate “military extravagance.”
Press reports have indicated that White House staffers, upon learning the release’s contents, abruptly decided Abzug should be canned. Staffers were said to be already miffed that the committee had cancelled its December meeting with Carter. According to members, a majority of the committee voted to cancel the session, although Abzug opposed such a move, because they felt the 15 minutes allotted was clearly not enough time for a meaningful dialogue.
Ledbetter, however, believes neither the press release nor the cancelled meeting were the real reasons for the dismissal. Rather, they were an excuse for the Carter administration to dispose of someone who wouldn’t toe the party line. The firing, she said, was indicative of the administration’s view of women.
“We were never taken seriously to begin with,” she said. “We were just shunted aside.”
The committee had been given a $300,000 budget and a staff to work with, but Ledbetter said Abzug and co-chair Carmen Delgado Votaw “did all the work.” Little cooperation was received from White House staffers, she said, and “it has been a constant hassle.”
“I think it’s essentially the president’s fault. I don’t think he’s without compassion for women, but it’s compassion for us as wives and mothers. He didn’t treat us as equals. He wouldn’t have treated a committee of men that way.”
Carter, meanwhile, defended his firing of Abzug at a press conference five days after the episode. The group’s criticism of him was “not part of it at all,” he said. His ap-
pointment of Abzug just “didn’t work out well. The committee has never been well organized; their functions have never been clearly expressed to me. There’s not been good cooperation between the committee and the Cabinet members or my advisors, or me.”
Carter said he understood the group’s function was “to work with me, hopefully in harmony, to achieve mutual goals – goals of enhanced opportunities for women, for the elimination of any discrimination against women, to assure that every decision made by the government, and the executive branch or Congress, has at least one factor to be considered: how we can best meet the needs of women and to overcome the suffering that they have experienced because of past legal and other discriminatory actions.”
Carter, feminists say, obviously would have preferred the panel stick to strict “women’s” issues such as abortion rights or the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. “But we did something really far out,” said Ledbetter, with a trace of sarcasm. “We were talking about fiscal policy.”
Ledbetter said those who resigned did not see themselves as taking a critical direction, as Carter had implied in his meeting with the committee before Abzug was given her pink slip.
“We saw it as our right to tell our various constituencies what the administration was doing in areas that affect women,” she said. “I don’t feel Bella lead us down a leftist, liberal path.”
Ledbetter was backed in her resignation by the Southern Coalition for Educational Equity, a group of Southern feminists formed recently to focus on issues of sexism and racism in secondary and elementary education.
While she believes Abzug’s firing and the resulting resignations were unfortunate, Ledbetter says publicity generated by the entire episode may have actually helped the cause.
“It was unfair to Bella, but in a sense it was good because somebody heard us say, ‘the economy is a women’s issue.’ That’s clearly what we wanted to do in the first place.”
What happens now, however, will probably be up to the remaining members and whomever Carter appoints to replace those who do not return. Whatever the outcome, Ledbetter and other feminists believe Carter has been hurt by the incident and will feel the repercussions come 1980. “He misjudged us,” she said. “And her strength.”
Among the stalwarts who stayed are six Southerners, including Memphis attorney Richard Rossie, the only remaining man; Owanah Anderson of Texas, member of the Health, Education and Welfare Committee on Rights and Responsibility of Women; Dr. Elizabeth Koontz, assistant state superintendent of education for North Carolina; Judy Carter, the president’s daughter-in-law; Brenda Parker, national president, Future Homemakers of America, another Texan; and Ann Richards, Travis County, Texas commissioner, and president of the Texas Association of Elected Women.
Rossie, founding member of the Women’s Resources Center of Memphis, blames Abzug and co-chair Votaw for the “totally negative” press release and the “foul-up,” and feels it was not the committee’s function to question the president’s economic policy.
“The president’s policy has been that excessive government spending leads to inflation, and we were implicitly rejecting that statement,” Rossie said.
And while Abzug was not personally involved in the preparation of the press release, Rossie says the staff who did prepare it “were her people. She chose them. I’m going to hold her responsible.”
The first version of the committee report, he charged, “clearly reflected her thinking and style,” which he termed “confrontational,” and he felt the committee staff had “gone wild” with it. Even after it had been redone to soften some of the more critical points, Rossie said “it reads Bella all over.”
Rossie, the only Southern member contacted to applaud Abzug’s firing, accused the former co-chair of “lecturing” Carter on the committee’s role during the group’s session with him. “Bella had the opportunity to say the press release was done without her approval and say thanks,” Rossie said, “but she didn’t.” Instead, she lectured the president on the role of the committee and how the committee viewed its role.”
Carter reportedly informed panel members of a few things he’d had on his mind about their function, namely that they weren’t being supportive enough of him.
Although feminists have said Carter’s firing of Abzug was a politically naive move, Rossie says Abzug’s treatment of the president made it the other way around. “I was horrified.”
Rossie, chairman of the Shelby County, Tenn., Democratic Committee, remains on the committee but is ambiguous about its future. Taking a more optimistic outlook were Koontz and Richards.
Koontz, former president of the National Education Association and director of the Women’s Bureau for the U.S.
Department of Labor, said she agreed to be on the committee because she believed in its purpose: ‘To further the goals of the Houston women’s agenda and have an impact at national, state and local levels. That has not been achieved,” she said.
“The war has not been won. I don’t want to give up. I hope we can be a stronger force for what has happened. There must be someone there to negotiate.”
Koontz said she had been contacted by another committee member who had resigned and asked why she had not done so as well. “I wouldn’t regard it as pressure,” she said, “but I basically operate on the premise that we set out to do a job … and I think it’s still possible to do that job.”
The chairman of the National Committee on Working Women, Koontz predicted some members may come back if they could do so “without turning their backs on Bella.” If they do not, however, Carter will more than likely have to appoint replacements from the same organizations whose representatives resigned.
For Ann Richards, whose political commitments in Texas keep her busy year-round, resigning from the committee would have meant turning her back on a decision she made last year to join the group in spite of other commitments.
Though she said she would not pass judgment on those who resigned in protest, Richards said, “Women need to progress to the point where we’re stateswomen, not merely reacting to changes because we don’t agree.”
“From my own conversations with Sarah Weddington (Carter’s special assistant for women’s affairs), my impression is that the White House wants it to continue. There was never any concrete definition of what we were going or where we were going. I hope out of this will come a better understanding of the whole thing. Time will tell.”
Lenora Reese is on the staff at the Alabama Journal in Montgomery.