AT LUNCH they sat talking in a booth at the restaurant across from their office building, three women in soft suits, somewhere between their Wunderkind days and middle age.
Because of their jobs, they didn't want to be identified any more specifically than that; they were even afraid to see their line of work in print.
For they had been waxing sarcastic about the "white boys": that is, the men who run the company. The chairman, the president, the vice presidents -- except for the V.P. for human resources, that being the designated female job. The big guys, the ones who make the decisions and the policy and who have no women or minorities in their ranks. It was a commonplace gripefest among professional women, laced with resignation, a little contempt and some bitterness.
This week it looked for a time as though the boys ruled alone even in the White House, even in a White House run by a president accustomed to the company of smart women. Dee Dee Myers, the first woman to be a presidential press secretary, was put in the humiliating position of answering questions about whether she was being eased out of her own job. It was only at the 11th hour that the president personally decided she would stay.
Ms. Myers's tenure has been a reflection of all the ways in which things go awry for high-ranking women who are on sufferance and for show. Her rank and her pay were lower than that of her predecessor, her office smaller, her eccentricities less tolerated. Once she went from the high-strung wacky world of the campaign trail, she began to eschew the dangly earrings that had been her trademark and tone down the California style of her attire.
But, navy suit or no navy suit, it was always said that she was "offbeat," which is to our nation's capital what being a serial killer is to the rest of the country. She was constantly spoken of as "out of the loop," excluded from the white male tribal circle. It showed in some press briefings. George Stephanopoulos often described decisions with the ease of one who had attended the meetings at which those decisions had been made. Ms. Myers occasionally had the tentative stiffness of someone describing matters she herself had been briefed on, secondhand.
Her job became even more difficult when Leon Panetta took over as chief of staff and a reorganization was promised that was rumored to include permanently reorganizing her. Besides, it is difficult to be a spokeswoman for an administration in which so many are so invested in open advertisements for themselves.
Nevertheless, Ms. Myers has been the face and voice of the Clinton Administration for millions of Americans, giving this President a public profile different, more diverse than any before. Perhaps Bill Clinton, who understands the value of visible symbols, realized that when he saved Ms. Myers' job and promised to provide her with better access to the inner circle.
This crisis came at a particularly unfortunate juncture for the administration. Hillary Rodham Clinton lately appears to be in retreat as a power player. If most of us had faced a barrage of stinging criticism of the sort she has received, the temptation to hide under the covers would be strong indeed. When was the last time a president's wife was burned in effigy, as this one was by Kentucky tobacco farmers not long ago?
So Mrs. Clinton has begun to take a lower profile, in all senses of the adjective. Last week, she had a public schedule not unlike that of the Princess of Wales; she christened a submarine and reviewed a parade in Connecticut. This week she will be showing Mrs. Yeltsin the sights. Yikes! Shades of Nancy Reagan.
Alone that is worthy of notice; combined with the ditching of Ms. Myers, it would have been conspicuous. For now the president )) dTC might want to keep a close eye on Mr. Panetta's gender antennae. "The president and I have full confidence in her ability to handle that role," the chief of staff said of the veteran press secretary, with that stunningly unconscious condescension working women know so well.
If the distaff side of the White House is reorganized out of existence or importance, it surely sends a message to American women about our complete dispensability. And, of course, there is always the possibility of women sending that message right back to Bill Clinton in 1996.
Anna Quindlen is a syndicated columnist.