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Women progress slowly in heading unions. Yet change is taking place with grass-roots organizations

Sandra Feldman's office tells the story of female workers' progress. In one corner hangs a plaque listing rules of conduct for the turn-of-the-century female teacher. She can't get married, dress in bright colors, or stay out after 8 p.m. except for school functions. ``You may not loiter downtown in ice cream shops,'' rule No. 4 says.

At the other end of the office sits Ms. Feldman - head of this city's 91,000-member United Federation of Teachers, praised as tough and competent by nearly everyone, ``a spine of steel,'' as New York Mayor Edward Koch once put it.

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Feldman is an example of the emergence of female leaders in many unions today. So far, though, their progress is slow.

For example, of 35 spots on the executive council of the AFL-CIO, only two are held by women. Last year, the council considered voting in a third woman to a vacant seat, but the move never materialized. In fact, of the major unions represented by the AFL-CIO, which represents almost all of them, none was headed by a woman until this September, when the president of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union passed on. The No. 2 officer, Lenore Miller, automatically succeeded him.

Some female labor leaders play down the underrepresentation. ``It's understandable,'' Feldman says. ``We ought to have a society where women can rise to these [leadership] positions when they're capable. [But] the labor movement is not worse than other institutions in this country.''

In fact, women are sorely underrepresented in top business echelons. A recent survey of the nation's largest companies discovered only 29 women out of 1,362 senior executives just below the rank of chief executive, according to U.S. News & World Report. While one in three men earns $30,000 or more, less than one in 10 women makes that much, the magazine added.

But other union women argue that the troubled labor movement is missing an important opportunity to organize dissatisfied and underpaid women. ``If unions are going into new areas, they're going to have to have a new look,'' says Joan Baggett, communications director at the International Union of Bricklayers.

The change is taking place slowly at the grass-roots level. One out of three union members is now a woman, according to the Coalition of Labor Union Women. During the past 20 years, women have accounted for half of the total increase in union membership. Last year, Connecticut became the first statewide AFL-CIO to elect a woman as leader. Four other women are now second-in-command in their statewide AFL-CIO groups.

But to attract a larger share of that burgeoning work force, more union women may have to take local leadership positions, Ms. Baggett says. Women leaders may not only help bring in more women, they may also revitalize the organizing of new members, she adds.

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``The women I've met in terms of local leadership go about it [organizing] in a different way than the men,'' Ms. Baggett says. ``It's newer to the women. There's a natural reflection of enthusiasm.''

Adds Feldman: ``I think women are closer to their feelings. And I think that's good. They can bring a certain feeling and compassion.'' But some men do this very well, too, she adds, and union members vote in a leader because of ability and actions, not gender.

In general, unions in the US have been either lukewarm or opposed to the idea of women in the labor movement, says Winifred Wandersee, a history professor at Hartwick College and author of a book on working women in the 1930s. ``During the depression, women were encouraged not to work,'' she says, particularly married teachers, because it was thought their husbands could support them.

Much has changed, of course, but chauvinism, tradition, and the relatively late arrival of female labor leaders will discourage the change, these women say.

``It's always very difficult when institutions have a changing of the guard,'' Feldman says.

Baggett adds: ``I'm fairly impatient ... For all its liberalness, I think the trade union movement is fairly conservative in its attitudes toward change.''

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