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Lynda Bird Robb Returns to the White House Wearing a New Hat: Women's Advocate

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She wasn’t exactly the obvious choice to replace Bella Abzug as chairman of President Carter’s National Advisory Committee for Women. Lynda Bird Johnson Robb is, after all, a retiring refugee from inherited fame whose husband once described their marriage as the traditional kind: “The male seeks gainful employment and the female is the homemaker.” Indeed she once said as much herself: “I should have my career wherever he’s living, and make sure I have dinner ready.” But, at 35, LBJ’s daughter has come a long way, maybe. When she took over the job (from which Carter sacked Abzug last January), Lynda offered a new self-description. “I am a contemporary woman,” she declared. “I do a lot of juggling. I am a home-maker, a mother, a volunteer and a businesswoman.”

Alas, most feminists remain skeptical. “Carter either couldn’t find someone to take the job who had a constituency or he didn’t want an independent,” complained Gloria Steinem (though adding that personally, “Lynda is a good person who cares”). Lynda worries about movement misgivings over her appointment but sees the position as “a great opportunity—a chance for me to grow.” Husband Chuck, 39, Virginia’s lieutenant governor, gave his approval, and her father would have too, says Lynda. “He had a commitment to women. I think he would have pushed me into it.”

Had the call come much earlier, Lyndon might have had to. By the time of her 1967 White House wedding to Marine Captain Robb, Lynda’s destiny was pointed firmly toward home and hearth. Her headlined cavorting with actor George (Love at First Bite) Hamilton and the ballyhooed launch of her magazine writing career had left her resistant to limelight. She wanted Chuck to stay in the service, but he resigned anyway to enter first law school, then politics—and Lynda found herself the reluctant front lady for yet another family politician.

Since Chuck’s election in 1977 she has happily burrowed in again, tending to their three daughters (Lucinda Desha, 10, Catherine Lewis, 8, and Jennifer Wickliffe, 11 months). At least one day a week she leaves their $500,000 McLean, Va. home to manage WEEL, a 5,000-watt radio station nearby that the Johnson family company bought for her last year.

Her new (unpaid) White House job promises to upset that balanced life in a big way. Her visibility could be an asset to Chuck, who is expected to run for governor in 1981—and is suspected of designs on still higher office. With former Texas Gov. John Connally threatening his southwestern flank, Carter could well use a Bird in hand. The eyes of women are on Lynda as well. “Her problem,” says Abzug, “will be assuring everyone that the committee will not be a political vehicle for the President.”

Mrs. Robb (as she calls herself) is not intimidated. “I hope to represent the women who have not belonged to anything in the women’s movement,” says Lynda, herself a supporter of ERA and abortion rights. “I am going to be a conduit of the women of this country to the President. Not their voice,” she adds pointedly, “but their conduit.” Chuck, meanwhile, hails Lynda as “the best appointment Carter’s made yet”—even after a taste of the implications. Two weeks ago, facing an early-morning TV interview about her new assignment, Lynda found herself without a babysitter. But she kept her date. For four hours, until help arrived, the lieutenant governor stayed with the kids.