For one of the most influential women in America, as she has been called, Alice Tepper Marlin displays few of the trappings of power. No elegant, understated designer clothes: She usually dresses in blue jeans and penny loafers at work. A limousine? Her transportation is a five-speed bicycle on which she threads her perilous way through rush-hour traffic. Her disheveled office overlooking a cut-rate clothing store in lower Manhattan is the antithesis of the corporate boardroom. Rufus, the office mutt, is welcomed to staff meetings. Taped above the office coffeepot is a request for 10-cent contributions.

Wife of an economist, mother of two adopted Korean children, Tepper Marlin (the name is hers plus her husband's, without a hyphen) is the founder and life force of the Council on Economic Priorities. It is one of the country's most respected and long-lived public-interest agencies. A demure woman with a fragile handshake, she challenges America's corporate giants to live up to their social responsibility.

"Alice represents a new women's style of leadership," says Florida-based environmentalist and author Hazel Henderson. "She calls people to their better selves through gentleness and firmness." Tepper Marlin decided to become a watchdog of big business because, she says, "It has such tremendous power. If you move an institution as large as Du Pont one-tenth of one percent, the impact is enormous." But, she complains, "business often doesn't set goals that are most important to society."

This summer CEP will publish a report summarizing its first decade. "If I was rating CEP on a Bo Derek scale of efficacy," says San Francisco public-interest lawyer Robert Gnaizda, "I'd give it a 9¼." The council is not so generous in its meticulously researched evaluations of companies on such social issues as pollution control, equal opportunity and consumer rights. CEP's rankings spotlight saints and sinners in the corporate community. Among the companies CEP has applauded as relatively pollution-free are Owens-Illinois, Atlantic Richfield, Shell Oil and Pacific Gas and Electric. Crocker National and Wells Fargo banks have been praised for strong records in hiring minorities and women. Villains include polluters like Gulf, Texaco, Republic Steel and National Steel.

"CEP is a constant burr under the blanket," observes California's Secretary for Resources Huey Johnson, who was so impressed with an environmental study the council did that he agreed to join the board of directors. Unlike Ralph Nader, Tepper Marlin avoids head-on confrontations with big business. "No critic has laid a glove on Alice," Johnson explains. "We have never made a major mistake," Tepper Marlin says.

That does not spare her angry letters from embarrassed executives, however. Mobil canceled its subscription to CEP publications after receiving bad marks in pollution control. Charles Luce, chairman of New York's Consolidated Edison utility, was so angry when the council challenged his assessment of what nuclear plants cost to build and maintain that he sent a rebuttal to the homes of all 12 CEP board members.

"Our findings have a direct impact on those in a position to make changes," Tepper Marlin notes. Executives at Potlatch Corp. in San Francisco, for example, were appalled to learn they were among the worst polluters in the paper industry. Within two years, when CEP issued an update, the company had improved markedly.

The seed for CEP was planted inadvertently in 1968. Alice Tepper was then a securities analyst (and anti-Vietnam protester) at the Thomas O'Connell investment firm in Boston. A local synagogue with a pacifist membership asked for a list of companies with no financial interest in the Vietnam war. Realizing that socially concerned investors did not have access to that information, Alice took a leave of absence to set up an organization to provide that kind of service. Then she looked for "a man with credentials and clout to head such a research firm. But no one would take the risk or thought it a viable idea." So at age 26, she took on the job herself.

With a $5,000 grant and a $25,000 loan from a District of Columbia minister, the council was launched with 18 volunteers and student interns in a Washington hotel. "Getting free office space [from Sonesta hotels] and press coverage was easier because I was a woman," she remembers, "but it was difficult to raise large sums of money." When CEP was granted tax-exempt status, the Rockefeller Family Fund donated $10,000. "We were impressed that she tried to be objective in the way she analyzed the issues," says fund director Robert Scrivner. "We believed she was dedicated enough to keep it going."

The council has hovered on the verge of bankruptcy three times, and Alice has had to withstand criticism that was suspiciously sexist. The St. Regis paper company called the CEP staff "a bunch of girls running around in miniskirts," and a pulp industry trade magazine labeled her "Alice in Pollution Land." Nonetheless, she has kept the organization alive and earned her credibility in the marketplace.

"Alice appears as this brown-eyed, soft-spoken woman—the kind you'd want your son to marry," observes economist Robert Heilbroner, "but she is tough-minded, clear-sighted and not easily put off. She has extraordinary mastery of her material, and donors eating out of her hand."

Today the council, with a staff of 27 researchers and administrators (17 men, 10 women), has a budget of $500,000, contributed primarily by foundations and individuals. Companies also pay a $1,000 annual subscription fee for a steady stream of major studies, updates and newsletters. Subscribers range from AT&T to the Sierra Club to Xerox.

Looking back on the first years, Tepper Marlin says, "I could only be described as a fanatic. There was nothing as important as CEP. I had no other life." That was true until 1971, when she met John Marlin, a Harvard-trained economics professor who discovered her picture in a Playboy column about interesting young people. "She seemed rather uptight and determined not to look sexy in her photograph," he remembers, "but I was curious about what she was doing, so I got my research assistant to call her and make a lunch date for me." Alice recalls, "The lunch lasted about six hours and I think during that time marriage crossed my mind." A couple of months later, after they had gone out three times, John moved in with her. "It might have appeared rather peculiar," he observes, "because she continued to go out on dates, while I taught night classes. As I began to move more clothes in, we both started to panic over the decision whether to make a commitment to each other. You could say that with Alice it was love at first sight, but there are lots of those—it was our love of children and family life that decided us finally." They were married in 1971. Two years later John gave up teaching to launch the Council on Municipal Performance, a private agency that monitors state and local governments and is substantially funded by the same corporate giants that CEP watches over.

"Originally we were going to have one child and adopt another," Alice explains, "but suddenly I was 30 and he was 32, so we stopped using birth control and filled in adoption applications at the same time." The stork lost. The shortage of healthy adoptable babies in the U.S. led them to international agencies. Within a year a little boy was sent to them from Korea. Named J.J. (John Joseph), he is now 6. They adopted a daughter, Caroline, now 2, three years later.

"Motherhood has mellowed her," says one CEP staff member. "She is much more assured, more inclined to delegate responsibility." Alice herself agrees. "The children and John have brought more joy to my life than anything else."

Alice Tepper spent a tranquil childhood in affluent Rumson, N.J., where her parents owned a rubber factory. Her older sister, Nancy, now a Revlon executive, went off to college when Alice was 8, leaving her alone with a menagerie of chickens, rabbits, geese and daydreams. "My mother used to tear her hair trying to get me to dress," Alice says. "I would sit staring off into space with one sock on and the other in my hand, forgetting there was a school bus on its way."

She developed a social conscience as a child. "I've always had an affinity for people in a minority position," she says. "There was only one other Jewish family in our community, and I remember being called on in class to explain Jewish holidays. I didn't know what they were because we didn't celebrate them." She continues, "Both my parents were well educated and reasonably liberal. They encouraged me to ask questions."

She did so at boarding school in Bryn Mawr, Pa. and at Wellesley College, where she switched her major from premed to economics. She rented a weekend apartment in Cambridge so she and friends could stay out after the 11 p.m. curfew—evidence of an early independent streak.

After graduating in 1966, she trekked through Europe with little more than a sleeping bag and three months later took her first job, editing an international tax journal in Amsterdam. She subsequently returned to the U.S. with a vague idea about helping blacks set up small businesses. Realizing she needed more experience, she took a job as a securities analyst in a Wall Street firm. "I told them I wanted to become a partner," she recalls, "which probably impressed them since women didn't say that very often in the '60s." Two years later she quit to campaign for Eugene McCarthy. The following year she took a job helping to draw up a prospectus for an Esalen-type encounter group in New England. "I thought I could learn the nuts and bolts of starting a small company," she explains. After that, she joined Thomas O'Connell and then created the council. A woman with her skills and experience would be considered a prize by almost any corporation, and Alice probably could triple her $39,600 salary. According to Ralph Nader, "She could fit right into any VP slot, but unlike Oscar Wilde, she resists everything, including temptation."

The luxury of a spacious co-op and a full-time housekeeper has its appeal, but the promise of a fat salary is not enough to lure her from the council. "In order to take a position elsewhere," Tepper Marlin says, "I would have to be convinced I was doing something more important." Among the projects on CEP's 1980 roster are a major study on the economic, environmental and employment impact of the MX missile program and a manual for activist shareholders on how to influence corporate policy.

The Marlins live in a cramped four-and-a-half-room apartment in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. Weekends they shepherd the children from playground to museum, and if time permits they work for a neighborhood block association and attend Democratic party meetings. Both John and Alice voted for Carter in 1976—but she concedes, "I supported the platform he presented before he was elected." She is uncommitted this time, having decided Carter is making expensive and dangerous mistakes in military spending and is bent on "financial suicide" unless he modifies his energy program. "She lives her beliefs," says one board member. "She isn't one to change her stripes."

"I've never quite understood why women wanted to be younger," Alice muses. "Every year I get older, I'm happier."