Women's summit sees an uphill road Conference: Some common ground emerges in wide-ranging discussions about obstacles in American society.

June 04, 1998|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- If the summit convened here yesterday by Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend had been strictly about the working poor, about day care solutions for blue-collar families, or about the plight of single mothers, the debate would have taken a more unified, less meandering path.

But the daylong summit's topic -- "Solutions: Women's Juggle for Time" -- cast a wide net, attempting to examine the needs of all women, from the most affluent working moms to those most disenfranchised and with little sense of dignity and hope.

Some on hand would argue that time, or lack of it, was perhaps not the most critical commodity for an impoverished family. Panelist Rev. Vashti McKenzie of Payne Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church in West Baltimore put it simply: The needs and solutions for those who "have to" work do not always resemble the needs and solutions for those who "want to work."

But by day's end, a distinguished group of women representing women's foundations, think tanks, unions, government agencies, the media and universities somehow found their way to common ground in the complex and land-mined turf of American society.

Many of the ideas and proposed solutions for giving people more autonomy and ability to manage their lives were based on tried-and-true efforts in localities around the country. Other ideas were much more of the wishful thinking variety, calling upon employers to grant "personal flexibility" to workers and allow them to build their work day around family needs.

The summit was divided into four panel discussions that focused on community, government, business and individual efforts to resolve the manifold crises that confront American families. The questions and issues came faster than the solutions:

What about African-American women for whom traditional, family-based day care arrangements have crumbled under the welfare state?

Does society have a right to set minimum standards for corporate America's treatment of its work force?

Do convoluted regulations get in the way of more ample and higher quality day care?

How do we keep middle schoolers from "vegetating in front of media" after school?

If it took nine years to pass the medical and family leave act, how can we expect to expand it to cover time for taking children to dentist appointments?

We're obsessed with day care, but what about its shadow issue, elder care?

How much can we count on government to provide solutions?

Can small business, run increasingly by women, afford an expansion of the family leave act?

At lunch, Katharine Graham, chairwoman of the executive committee of the Washington Post Co., spoke of her struggles as a young woman who suddenly became publisher of a high-profile newspaper with flagging self-confidence and the instinct to cede decision-making to men. When Graham noted that she was once "afflicted with the desire to please," the audience nodded and laughed, as if to say, "Been there, done that."

But Graham's was not an unambiguous, "You've come a long way, baby" message. No one can have it all, she said, but added, the key word is "choice."

"Women used to have only one road to choose," she said.

At the summit's conclusion, those in attendance voted on which solutions were the most feasible and deserving of follow-up.

One suggestion, to reframe the issue of child care as one of education, received high marks for its ingenious rethinking of a ponderous issue. A program in New York which translates contributions of time into purchasing dollars for the elderly was also highly regarded.

Summit participants also agreed on much broader concepts: that day care regulations should be revamped, that corporate culture must become more open to family needs, that women deserve equal pay, and that the disenfranchised need more support.

All in all, it was a great forum, said Donna Edwards, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 92, which represents 8,450 state workers.

But the women she's familiar with as a union official and as an employee of Baltimore Department of Social Services do not have the sort of choices Graham spoke of, she said. These are the women for whom adequate day care, elder care and other support systems are not merely solutions for balancing one's career and home life.

Instead, she said, they are the difference between keeping a job and not keeping a job.

The summit -- and America -- "hasn't gotten that far yet," Edwards said.

Pub Date: 6/04/98

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