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Concerned Women for America: soft voices with clout.

A veteran U.S. congressman likes to tell the story about his first encounter with a Concerned Women for America delegation. His practice was to set aside one day a month to allow special-interest groups to enter the inner sanctum of his Capitol Hill office, mount their soapboxes and plead their causes for 15 minutes. And not a second longer.

On this particular day, his secretary announced that a new organization--something called Concerned Women for America--was on the agenda. He gritted his teeth and steeled himself for round one with yet another assemblage of often shrill, usually demanding activists. What did they want now?

"Three very gracious ladies walked in, introduced themselves and said, 'Congressman, what can we do to help you?'" recalls Beverly LaHaye, the president of the 540,000-member group. "They approached him with a totally different idea that took him off his feet. They ended up getting 30 minutes of his time and becoming real helpers. They feed him information now on a regular basis so he can study our side of an issue, as well as the other side, and make a good evaluation of a bill."

Concerned Women for America, a mouthful easily distilled to CWA, was officially launched just six years ago yet currently boasts active chapters in all 50 states. Ironically, the conservative group owes its existence in part to the liberal feminist Betty Friedan. A Barbara Walters interview with Friedan spurred CWA founder Beverly LaHaye to plan a modest gathering of San Diego friends to trade thoughts on family issues. How was she to know 1,200 women would RSVP?

"I think the whole concept for Concerned Women for America was born that night I heard Betty Friedan say on television that she represents the women of America," Mrs. LaHaye recalls. "I knew in my heart that, yes, she represents a small segment, but she certainly doesn't speak for the vast majority of the women I know. That's when I decided to start educating my peers through meetings in San Diego. I wanted to talk about women's issues, the Equal Rights Amendment, the growth of the abortion issue. As I look back on it, I'm sort of ashamed that I didn't have a broader vision. But maybe that's been the uniqueness, because no one set out to form a national organization that would become the largest women's group in America."

Within a few months of the first San Diego rally, CWA was incorporated and was trying to keep pace with requests from women across the country. "I remember I wrote a letter to Beverly and asked what I could do on a local level here in Oklahoma," recalls Marcia Wells, a 31-year-old wife and mother from Bixby, near Tulsa. "I knew several people involved in NOW [National Organization for Women], and when I heard them talk I felt their values were not my values. I wondered what I could do. CWA sent me information on how to start a local chapter. Since October we've met the first Friday of the month to talk about the issues."

And it's the tissues that bind together the membership--the young mothers, the grandmothers, the married and single men and women, the homemakers and the professionals. They are pro-life and anti-child abuse; they favor a voluntary-prayer amendment but oppose an equals-rights amendment; they deplore laws that grant special protection to homosexuals; and they champion parents' rights to direct the upbringing of their children in matters of education and religion. They share common concerns, although priorities may vary from chapter to chapter.

"We backed a city councilman when he favored the conviction of persons possessing pornography," explains Doris Holman, the CWA chapter leader in Akron, Ohio. "We've also succeeded in keeping pornography out of a chain of local variety stores."

"We opposed a bill in the Oklahoma legislature that would change the mandatory school age from seven to five," Mrs. Wells says. "And we want more parental input on textbook selection in the elementary and middle schools. We think textbooks are used as vehicles in order to push the humanist viewpoint."

For many members, the foray into the world of laws, legislators and lobbyists is a new one and is best taken in small steps. Some novice CWA recruits prefer a passive role and merely read the monthly newsletter and various educational materials sent from CWA headquarters on Capitol Hill. Others participate in local prayer and action chapters and choose to influence legislators from their homes via telephone calls and letters. Still other members are undergoing intensive training in Washington to become part of the "535 Program," an effort to assign CWA volunteer lobbyists to the 535 members of Congress.

"Our Capitol Hill lobbyists stay in touch with key women out in the 435 congressional districts," Mrs. LaHaye says. "We eventually want to build 20 women in each district so they, in turn, can spread the word on how their U.S. senators or congressmen are voting and possibly rally CWA members to apply pressure as key bills come up for votes."

Although Bev LaHaye insists that no member of CWA's leadership team should be indispensable, she clearly shoulders the burden of directing the group's 22-person staff in Washington. Her charisma as a well-known speaker on the Christian lecture circuit, her appeal as a pastor's wife and her reputation as the author of seven books have provided the credibility that stirs the burgeoning membership to action. In Christian circles her name has clout, and her words evoke trust. Admirers know that before going public with her CWA cause she successfully reared four children and--with her husband, Dr. Tim LaHaye--conducted 465 family-life seminars in 42 countries. She was the cohost of a weekly TV show and a call-in radio talk show; for five years she has been selected as one of the ten most admired non-congressional women in the United States, ranking right behind First Lady Nancy Reagan.

"I'm a strong believer that everything we do today is for the purpose of preparing us for tomorrow," she says. "I look back and I can see that many of the lessons I learned as a minister's wife with a growing family and as a lecturer on family living were stepping stones to what I'm doing with Concerned Women for America. In our family seminars we taight people how to insulate their homes and families against outside forces; that helped me sort out my beliefs and develop the strong convictions I have today. Because of my past experiences I'm probably able to reach women who otherwise might sit back in their pews and be a bit apathetic. Because they know I'm a pastor's wife and perhaps have read my books, they're willing to trust me when I say there are issues we must be concerned about."

Tracking those issues, keeping the CWA members updated on their status, rallying support for profamily causes and generating opposition to bills that threaten family rights have caused her to relocate from California to Washington, D.C., require her to be on the road every weekend and necessitate her carrying home a briefcase full of homework each night.

She jokes that someone once said you have to hemorrhage in order to get someone else to bleed, and as the leader of a large organization she has to be more saturated with CWA's work and more knowledgeable about its causes than the general membership. Her goal is to keep ahead of the members--no easy task, she insists--so she can continue to be a source of strength and motivation. She refutes the superwoman tag and occasionally frets about financial matters, admits to being tired by the pace and pleads old-fashioned homesickness for her six grandchildren back in San Diego. Her remedies for these maladies include an annual, two-week family reunion on board a houseboat somewhere in the Grand Canyon ("no phones, no TV, no newspapers"), leisurely dinners with her husband ("we discuss new ideas we wouldn't dare mention to anyone else"), and a favorite passage from the Bible (2 Tim. 1:7).

"It goes like this: 'For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.' I guess that's been the verse that has kept me going, because when I think of what I'm doing right now I could become kind of fearful. We have to raise large amounts of money to keep doing what we're doing," she says.

Especially coastly are the expenses incurred when CWA decides to go to court in defense of a profamily issue. Four attorneys work full-time on behalf of the organization and research and prepare cases that often pit their wits against those of the American Civil Liberties Union's legal staff. They choose their cases carefully; they are compiling an impressive record of victory.

"Right now we have 14 cases in progress," explains Michael Farris, CWA's general legal counsel. "It takes a long time; one case, for example, was started in 1979, and I get to argue it before the U.S. Supreme Court this fall." The case involves a blind resident of Washington state who was denied vocational-rehabilitation benefits because he wanted to attend a Spokane Bible school to study to be a pastor. The Washington state supreme court, ruling against the student, said his educational goal violated the separation of church and state. CWA jumped into the legal fracas because Farris believes the case could set a precedent for religious freedom.

"We use four criteria in deciding whether or not to get involved in a case," Farris says. "First, is it a precedent-setting issue? Are we fighting for something larger than the individuals involved? Second, how close is it to our concerns? Does it deal with family rights? Religious freedom? Third, can the people afford to fight the case themselves? We're not likely to take it on if they're millionaires. Lastly, how busy are we? There are many cases that meet all our criteria, but we turn them down because we don't have an open slot. Sometimes we get ten requests a day, and we can only take on about ten cases a year. We want to do a good job."

And they do. Farris views his role as legal counsel as more a mission than a job. Ordained by his church to minister in the legal arena, he maintains he has no desire to establish a more lucrative private practice: Too much work remains to be done. He and his staff are currently battling a ban on Christmas carols in a Florida high school; they're supporting a mothers' efforts to prevent her homosexual ex-husband from gaining custody of her son; and they're arguing in favor of parents whose children were suspended from school for refusing to read a textbook they said violated their religious beliefs.

"Nobody has been fighting on this side of the issues for very long," Farris explains. "For decades the ACLU was pulling from the left, and there was no counteraction from the Christian community. Just the fact that we're now pushing, pulling, shoving and arguing cases and winning far more than we lose shows progress. But we've got a long, long way to go. Each suit is complex and involves six to eight feet of files. It's very expensive to try major constitutional cases."

For support the lawyers have a network of half a million CWA members applauding their efforts and praying for their success. When the battlefront moves from the courts to Congress, that same network is capable of swamping leading players with a deluge of mail and telephone calls. But CWA doesn't stop there. At its recent national convention it offered members training in how to run for political office, how to wage a campaign for the board of education and how to have an effect on the public school system. The theme of the information-sharing convention was a phrase from Esther 4:14: ". . . for such a time as this. . . ."

"I believe women are being raised up for such a time as this," Mrs. LaHaye says. "When you're talking about family issues, women can be very strong, very tough . . . and I mean that in the good sense of the word. The average American woman has endurance and is willing to give of herself for what she believes is right. I think God is going to use us to turn the tide from becoming a humanist nation."

Her followers in the field degree. With some surprise they report that when they band together, their soft voices have clout. "It's time for us to step out of our church pews and join hands," says Marcia Wells in Oklahoma.

Several hundred miles away in Ohio, Doris Holman echoes the sentiment: "Sure, it may mean another meeting to go to, and people are 'meetinged' to death. But something has to be done, and if we don't do it, who will?"
COPYRIGHT 1985 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Miller, Holly G.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Oct 1, 1985
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