Elizabeth Dole and Dee Jepsen win grudging respect from many women’s organizations.

The defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) last June appeared to leave “liberated” and “traditional” women hopelessly divided. Members of NOW (the National Organization for Women) fasted in protest, while Stop-ERA promoters celebrated.

Defeated feminists directed their wrath toward President Reagan and his perceived attempts to keep women in their place, while a recession economy increasingly pressured them out of the house and into the work force. Now, thanks to two women whose “place” is in the White House, Reagan administration efforts on women’s issues are gaining slow, tentative support from all but the most outspoken groups.

Elizabeth Hanford Dole and Dee Jepsen, like most women, do not align themselves with—or against—radical feminism. Both are married to U.S. senators from the Midwest and have strong personal commitments to Christ. They are devoted to husband and family, but are equally at home in their career pursuits, and they actively seek common ground with women’s rights groups on issues of legal and economic equity. Dole was the president’s assistant for public liaison. As this article went to press, Dole was named Secretary of Transportation by President Reagan. Jepsen, as the administration’s liaison with women’s groups, reported to Dole prior to her recent appointment.

Both women want to see tangible results—Dole calls it “compassion women can put in the bank.” Achieving this means chipping away at laws and regulations, gaming victories that rarely attract attention.

One example, accomplished by a White House Coordinating Council on Women chaired by Dole, makes it easier for low-income women to claim a child-care tax credit on their income tax returns. Originally, the credit did not show up on the “short form” most low-wage earners use. The coordinating council learned about this from a women’s rights group and it advised the Treasury Department to make the change.

Jepsen is well known in Washington as the wife of conservative Sen. Roger W. Jepsen (R-Iowa) and as the organizer of a Senate wives’ Bible study. Because of this, Jepsen’s appointment in late September was greeted with dismay and skepticism by feminists. But she has proved able to bridge gaps between the Reagan administration and women’s groups.

Pat Ruth, legislative director of the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL) characterizes Jepsen as “open, honest, and helpful.” Ruth was a skeptic last fall, assuming that Jepsen was a radical conservative straight from a midwestern Moral Majority chapter. Discovering otherwise improved Jepsen’s credibility with Ruth.

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WEAL priorities include Social Security reform, insurance reform, and addressing the concerns of poor, elderly women. In these areas, Ruth believes Jepsen is willing to push for change from within the administration. The abortion issue is their biggest potential stumbling block, but both sides have declared a truce. “We don’t even talk about it,” Ruth said. “Reproductive freedom” remains on WEAL’s agenda.

Jepsen, a strong prolife advocate, believes the secret to working together is mutual respect. “Women who are opposed to abortion need to understand that there are many prochoice women who feel it’s their duty to stand up for the right of a woman to control her own body. Now, I totally disagree with that, but I know many of these people are very sincerely motivated. I respect them and believe they’re well intentioned even though I will work against their cause.”

Some women’s groups charge that the threat of a “gender gap” is what compelled Reagan to establish the coordinating council in July and appoint Jepsen just one month before last fall’s elections. In other words, it was only politics, they say, that prompted Reagan’s sudden concern for women.

But Dole and Jepsen are letting administration actions speak for themselves. One that has received support from WEAL is the Fifty States Project, designed to encourage each state to identify and eliminate statutes that discriminate against women.

A similar effort at the federal level resulted from legislation introduced by Dole’s husband, Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.). Mrs. Dole sees these actions as “another track to equal rights for women” that could tap into energies once channeled into the fight to pass ERA. “If we show we’re serious and if we produce results, I think we’ll have them right in there working with us,” Dole said.

One glaring exception to that statement is NOW, the feminist group known for its long and losing battle for the ERA. NOW remains disenchanted with Reagan. The group, with 250,000 members, claims to have doubled its size since the 1980 election. A NOW position paper discounts administration programs as “ineffective efforts that are no more than smokescreens.”

Specifically, NOW views the Fifty States Project as an insult to women, claiming the work has already been done by previous administrations. NOW’s leaders have not met with either Dole or Jepsen and refuse to comment about them, except to observe that Jepsen “has been active in Far Right organizing efforts.”

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NOW disdains any economic initiative short of the passage of ERA. It views the amendment as the best and the only tool for achieving economic equity. Dole counters that the Reaganites have helped women economically, by changing laws in order to correct “marriage tax” penalties, Individual Retirement Account (IRA) limitations, and unfair inheritance taxes.

Dole and Jepsen say the most significant economic benefit for women is the drop in inflation, from about 13 percent to less than 6 percent. Reagan’s appointments of Sandra O’Connor to the Supreme Court, Jeane Kirkpatrick to the United Nations, and other women to head the Peace Corps, Environmental Protection Agency, and Consumer Product Safety Commission should mollify critics as well, they insist. The fact that Dole and Jepsen wield influence at the White House is in itself a measure of how women have increasingly gained a hearing in government.

Change at the top may reflect change at the grassroots, and new currents in feminist thought are evident. Two decades ago. Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, ushered in the organized women’s liberation movement. Now, in a newer volume called The Second Stage, Friedan questions the popular wisdom of feminists who have sought to push sexual freedom and other individual liberties to the limit. Beginning with her own daughter, Friedan has observed women experiencing “pain, puzzlement, bitterness,” because they deny and suppress real needs for “love, security, men, children, family, home.”

She even challenges the approach to abortion rights: “Such slogans as ‘free abortion on demand’ had connotations of sexual permissiveness, affronting not only the moral values of conservatives but implying a certain lack of reverence for life and the mysteries of conception and birth.”

Elizabeth Dole, as President Reagan’s assistant for public liaison, kept communication lines open between the administration and special interest groups of all sorts. By chairing a newly formed White House Coordinating Council on Women, Dole was particularly aware of the changes in society affecting women. She and her husband, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), were raised as Methodists and are active with Foundry Methodist Church in Washington, D.C.

When you addressed the National Association of Evangelicals’ annual convention last year, you said you are “shaping your work around your faith” for perhaps the first time. What does that mean?

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Before, my career had become all important and was sort of the center of my life. Now, my faith is central and other things flow from that. Once it is the center of your life and not an activity added to an already hectic schedule, it simplifies the complications of life that pull and push in all directions. It gives me a broader concept of how my career can be used in service to [God].

Is this particularly important because you are in the public eye?

Being in the public eye gives me unique opportunities to share my faith with others. This is probably the most challenging period of my career, and God is a very important source of power and strength. I’ve asked God to do his will in my life and I just hope I understand what it is. I think I’m ready to be fully receptive, but I sometimes wonder if I completely understand. Spiritual growth is not fast; it’s a slow process.

What role can churches play in reconciling divisions among women?

I certainly see a role for the church in helping women understand what’s happening and how to deal with it; accepting the problems in their lives and telling them they don’t have to be all things to all people. A basic love of God and wanting his will to be done in their lives would help them work through all this.

Friedan acknowledges what Dole and Jepsen successfully model: “Concepts that look irreconcilable on paper are in fact reconciled in real life.” It is not a matter of choosing between freedom or family, but of integrating tried and true values into rapidly changing circumstances.

Dee Jepsen, President Reagan’s liaison with women’s groups, is known as a leader among Christian women in Washington, D. C. She and her husband, Sen. Roger W. Jepsen (R-Iowa) are Lutherans, and attend the nondenominational Capital Church in suburban Virginia.

How has this new position affected your spiritual and home life?

I’m not able to work with my husband and travel with him as before, but he’s been very supportive. I’m finding he can help clean the house and make beds just as well as I can, and he’s doing it cheerfully, which I deeply appreciate.

When this opportunity presented itself it took a lot of deep thinking and praying. He encouraged me; he’s one of my biggest fans. If he had not felt that way and it would have been a problem in our relationship, I would not have pursued it.

When you speak to women, you often warn them against looking for self-worth in their function alone. Please explain that.

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Women have to realize they have value in and of themselves. As a Christian, I believe that value comes from being children of a creative God, created in his image and likeness. We certainly are not created equal in talents or abilities or appearance, but we are created with an equal spiritual worth, so we find our identity there, rather than looking for it in our function.

How has your commitment to Christ affected your ability to communicate with women’s groups?

It’s helped a great deal, because the perspective on life and on people that I have gained is that we all are special and no one is any more important than anyone else. I know the concerns other people are feeling are very real to them, whether I share them or not.

In doing this, Jepsen articulates a Christian alternative to feminism that does not rule out the pursuit of career: “The Lord didn’t create us just to take up space on this earth. I believe in doing the very best you can with the talents and abilities with which you are gifted.”

For Jepsen—and probably most women—that means a combination of child rearing and work outside the home. Jepsen has lived out three different roles—single (divorced) mother; full-time homemaker looking after six children; and career woman active in politics. “I believe there are seasons in life,” she says. “What may fit a woman when she’s in her twenties may not fit when she is in her forties.”

Jepsen is also a pacesetter for women in volunteer ranks. She helped organize CREED, a group working to release Christians imprisoned in the Soviet Union, as well as the STEP Foundation, ministering to inner-city needs. Before her White House appointment, she served as a volunteer in her husband’s Senate office, doing legislative research.

Dole’s experience presents a career-oriented contrast. She completed both a law degree and master’s degree in education at Harvard. She was the second woman ever appointed to the Federal Trade Commission, and rumors had been circulating in Washington that she was in line for a Cabinet-level post. She sees opportunities for women to get good educations and pursue careers as hallmarks of a desirable “liberation.” But at the same time she says “it is a perfectly fine choice to stay at home and be a mother. That is a very high calling indeed.”

Dole and Jepsen both made life choices from an array of options not limited to extreme feminism or reactionary traditionalism. Understanding the pressures that face women of all persuasions has enabled these two to seek out areas of cooperation and avoid confrontation. It’s a tactic that appears to be paying off both for the White House and for women.

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