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Women's centers fight to hang on

A funny thing happened on the way to do an article on women's centers, places where women could come for counseling on careers, financing, and legal rights. They closed.

Not all of them, certainly; perhaps not even most of them. But Jane Fleming, executive director of an 18-year-old Washington, D.C., network of women's centers called Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW), says they are ''hearing from centers all over the country who are in trouble, or closing, under the new federal funding cuts.''

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WOW, which pioneered the training of disadvantaged women in nontraditional job slots, hopes to continue this work with the help of industry and unions. ''For about $3,000 we can take a woman on welfare and give her entry-level skills,'' says Ms. Fleming.

The program, started in 1972, has placed 800 such women in jobs. ''A couple of them started at $21,000!'' says Ms. Fleming. ''It's like a miracle, really, and it saves the government thousands of dollars.''

The government, with Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) funds, has partially supported these and countless other small programs throughout the United States. But in September, as Ms. Fleming puts it, ''that money dries up, and we have to get private sources.''

Few women's centers are optimistic about receiving private monies. ''All kinds of organizations are out banging on the same doors,'' says Elaine Wood, information specialist at the Displaced Homemakers Network in Washington, D.C. ''And women's groups have traditionally received very little money from foundations.''

The Network, which has lost 104 centers (one-quarter of its number) this year and expects to lose more in September, says it is ''trying every lead we can. We hope that the states will pick up some of these programs, particularly those at the community colleges.''

Another group affected by federal cuts are centers for battered women. Although no survey has been made since April of last year, both the Coalition for Domestic Violence and the Center for Women's Policy Studies report cries of help from the field. ''We're constantly hearing from shelters that are going under,'' says Karen Crist of CWPS, ''but we know of others that are just starting up. So we don't know if the total number has declined yet.''

Women's centers of all types, which grew during the 1970s in response to the increasing number of singles, divorcees, and widows made suddenly responsible for their own welfare, filled the gap for women in many different situations.

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They have given ''divorce survival courses'' to the recently displaced; offered training in personal finances to women untrained in matters of checkbooks, taxes, and insurance; and provided legal assistance to women whose rights are being abused by employers or family members.

''Because women's centers are folding across the country,'' Ms. Fleming says grimly, ''that means there will be no more services for domestic violence, no more rape crisis counseling, no more help for women's employment at a time when women are most in jeopardy in the job market.''

Backing off somewhat, she admits that she expects ''a core to be preserved. We aren't going to go under; we're just going to suffer a lot.''

It's a role she believes women are accustomed to filling. ''Women are used to surviving and making do with a minimum of resources,'' says Ms. Fleming. ''We'll live through this.''

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