MY REPUBLICAN feminist friend ended our lunch on a bleak note: Ronald Reagan. She can't stand Ronald Reagan's views on abortion or the Equal Rights Amendment. (He's against both.) But she can't stand Jimmy Carter's 18 percent inflation, either. She can't quite believe what is happening, but here she is in March of an election year, seriously considering Reagan for president.
She is not alone in her dilemma.Pam Curtis, co-chair of the Republican Women's Task Force, says she has been considering a Reagan candidacy for the past several months and decided she simply cannot support "anyone for any office who doesn't have the same position I do on . . . ERA and abortion. I started working for the Republican Party in 1962 and it's very difficult to say that at this moment in the game that I can't support the Republican nominee. But I can see, unless he has a change on these two issues, that could happen."
Patricia Goldman, a Republican appointed by President Carter to the National Trasportation Safety Board, is hoping that Reagan will moderate his views on women's issues. "He is not unaware of the fact that he's going to have to make some compromises."
For the record, Reagan is against the Equal Rights Amendment and in favor of legislating equal rights. He is against the use of public funds for abortion except when the life of the mother is in danger and would favor a constitutional amendment banning abortions if Congress or the states don't do it themselves.
Mary Crisp, co-chair of the Republican National Committee, says she is sure that passage of the Equal Rights Amendment will be included once again in the platform at the convention, but others aren't so certain. They foresee the same kind of fight that occurred in 1976 when anti-ERA forces tried to get it out of the platform. But in 1976 there was an important difference: The Republican feminists had the unwavering support of President Ford and his wife. New Hampshire state Senator Susan McLane, a Bush supporter, predicts there will be convention fights to keep ERA out of the platform and to put an anti-abortion plan in. "Obviously both of these fights are going to be much more difficult with Mr. Reagan as a candidate."
"I hate to give up on either Bush or Anderson until it's all over," says McLane. "I guess what we do is fight to the bitter end for those prime issues we care about -- being pro-choice and for ERA -- and then go back to concentrating on our other goal, which is to get more women elected to public office so you don't have all men candidates making these decisions."
Meanwhile, Democratic feminists aren't having a much better time of it this campaign. They face the prospect of having to back a candidate whom the National Organization for Women has refused to endorse becauses of his record on women's issues, particularly what NOW perceives to be a lukewarm effort on behalf of ERA.
A few days ago the National Women's Political Caucus held a press conference at which some 40 organizations denounced Carter's budget balancing cuts, claiming he is placing a disproportionate burden on women, children, the poor and the aged. Leaders of various organizations got up and spoke about how many people would be jeopardized by cuts in such things as food stamps and Head Start, pointing out at the same time that the defense budget is not being cut.
There was the usual ration of rhetoric. Iris Mitgang, chair of the women's political caucus, concluded her statement by saying: "We cannot allow political expendiency to jeopardize programs which protect the most vulnerable members of our society. Those already hurt the most from spiraling inflation must not be left to sink under the burden of budget balancing."
And then came the dark warning that half the voters out there are women, and half the convention delegates are going to be women, so the politicians better pay attention to what women want. The press conference ended, in other words, with the kind of ballot rattling no one has paid attention to so far. And why should they? Women have failed to establish themselves as a significant voting bloc, and there is every indication that they won't do so this year.
But it won't be for lack of opportunity. A Republican politician I know says she is having a fantasy these days about how women could not only elect a Republican but could also establish themselves as a voting bloc. She knows that a lot of Democratic feminists are unhappy with Carter's record and that liberal women politicians such as Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) are backing Sen. Kennedy. This Republican politician also knows that Republican feminists are having trouble accepting Reagan. The knight in shining armor in her fantasy is, of course, John Anderson, the only candidate who seems to have both a shot at the White House and support of feminists.
Sometimes fairly soon, in her fantasy, the music stops and there would be a mass switching of partners, with all the women's organizations, and with the feminist voters -- Democrats, Republicans, and independents, crossing traditional party lines to vote for John Anderson.
It probably is all a fantasy, and the fact that it probably won't happen tells you something about the women's movement and its leadership. It tells you that for all the radical talk we've heard over the past decade about the movement changing society and about how women's interest cut across traditional party lines, that where it really counts -- in politics -- the women's movement is stuck, spinning its wheels, without true political leadership.
Here is a year in which women may have to choose between Reagan and Carter, which to many feminists is a little like trying to pick the tallest midget. There is an alternative, whom if women voted as women and not as Democrats or Republicans, they might even be able to help elect. Yet nowhere is there emerging a feminist leadership that is seizing the moment and leading that voting bloc into the Anderson camp.
Women are doing precious little this election year to help themselves.