Who's Afraid of Virginia's Senator? Not Liz, Who Comes Out Fighting for Women's Rights

updated 02/18/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/18/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

Not since she gave it to Richard Burton in Virginia Woolf had Elizabeth Taylor publicly laced into a mate with such acid-tongued eloquence. But this time the lines were her own, the stage was the GOP's annual Tidewater Conference and the audience was an astonished roomful of Republican heavies.

For most of the 110 senators, representatives, state officials and their spouses billeted at the Tidewater Inn on Maryland's Eastern Shore for the usually soporific policy forum, the highlight of the weekend was the squabble between Sen. John Warner and wife Liz. Discussion had droned on predictably over issues like energy and inflation—until Warner rose to offer a resolution that draft registration should be resumed, but for men only. Liz, a staunch ERA supporter, begged to differ. "Equal rights mean equal responsibilities," she argued. At a critical moment in the husband-wife debate, the senator (who opposes ERA) tried to silence his wife with a wave of the hand. "Don't you steady me with that all-domineering hand of yours," Liz snapped. Warner reddened. "Now hold on here," he said, advising her to "defer to my base of knowledge." He cited his background in the Navy and Marines, his secretaryship of the Navy and his current post on the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Yeah," said Liz pointedly, "and I've been working since I was 10 years old." Muttered the senator: "You've got to get back to work again soon."

During the 10-minute exchange at their table, the conclave came to resemble an E.F. Hutton ad, all ears turned to the Warner-Taylor confrontation. He pointed out that women are volunteering for more jobs than the armed services have to give them. "What kind of jobs are those?" asked Liz. "I'm proud to say that when I was Secretary of the Navy, I opened up many more jobs to women than they ever had before," John argued. "Rosie-the-Riveter jobs!" sneered his wife.

When the senator slipped off to another table to lobby for his resolution, Liz held an impromptu press conference, observing that "women have been in active combat since Year One" and citing female leaders from Cleopatra to Margaret Thatcher. On his return, Warner asked what she had been saying in his absence. Responded Liz: "That's one for me to know and you to find out."

The incident revived rumors that Liz is tired of life in the capital and hankers for Hollywood. But though she and John seemed miffed with one another, at Sunday brunch the next day "they were laughing like a pair of newly-weds," reports their host, Maryland Rep. Robert Bauman. "I don't think the incident is anything to worry about."

At the end of the conference Warner appeared to have the last word: "I have been instructed by all members at my table—male and female—to say that we are in unanimous agreement." Nonmember Liz kept her peace this time, and Warner's resolution passed on a voice vote.

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