IT'S LESS THAN three weeks until election day and Ronald Reagan has discovered women. Specifically, he has discovered that a significant percentage of American women haven't fallen for him and have instead, adopted a sort of stand-offish posture. This has suddenly become important because the polls are showing that this significant percentage could well be the deciding vote in a number of states. So Ronald Reagan has come a 'courtin' with diamonds.
His advisers believe that his warmonger image and his antifeminist image may be hurting him with women's voters. So this week the Reagan campaign staged a press conference in Los Angeles, and guess who showed up? That born-again feminist, Ronald Reagan, who cast himself in the role of this year's peace candidate and pledged to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court.
But our born-again feminist has a problem. He and the Republican Party platform are against the Equal Rights Amendment and for a constitutional amendment that would ban abortion except to save the life of the mother. The Republican Party feels so strongly about this, in fact, that it has directed in its platform that the president appoint to the federal judiciary only judges who are antiabortion. But listen to Ronald Reagan, opening his press conference:
". . . I cannot permit this campaign to go forward while some people apparently believe that I would in any way restrict the freedom and rights of women," Reagan said.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," he said. He listed 14 legislative actions he took to help women while he was governor of California, such as banning sex discrimination in employment and real estate transactions, and allowing married women to obtain credit in their own names.
Ronald Reagan, somehow, doesn't understand that depriving a woman of the right to have an abortion -- or forcing her to bear an unwanted child -- restricts certain of her rights and freedoms. That has nothing to do with the merits of the prochoice or antiabortion positions. That's simply a fact of life, and it is worth nothing that no one in the predominantly male press corps covering Reagan called him on his statement.
But forget all of that. Reagan has decided to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court. It is a grand gesture, and one that's obviously politically motivated; there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, what this shows is that women's issues, such as abortion and the ERA, are being viewed as an important voting factor for the first time in a presidential campaign. Those are issues on which there are clearly definable and understandable differences between the three candidates.
Susan Carroll, an assistant professor at George Washington University who teaches a course on women and politics, says that people have "for years been trying to argue that there is a distinctive women's vote, yet no one has been able to do that very effectively because generally in the final tally they come out and vote in equal proportions with men for the presidential candidates.
"The peace issue may be part of it, but what's really been underemphasized in a lot of Reagan's problem is his view on women's issues, such as ERA and abortion. I think he's underestimated how important these issue are to a lot of men and women in this country," she said. But other than its campaign significance, she is not impressed with Reagan's pledge. "I think basically anyone he appoints to the court would be of a conservative bent. If he appoints a woman, she would be of a conservative bent, and in terms of feminism, that's not what feminists want."
They do not want Phyllis Schlafly, JD, LLD, appointed to the Supreme Court. Reagan's gesture, initially at least, didn't have feminists knocking down the doors to go to work for him. But it did put Carter in the curious position of seeming less committed on something for women than Reagan. Carter responded to Reagan's move by saying he thinks it's a mistake to promise to appoint any particular kind of American. That may be true in principle.But there is no particular kind of American who is less represented on the court while there are eminently qualified women lawyers to do the representing. The merit of Reagan's proposal is all the more obvious if you consider the fact that the court routinely considers issues that have a distinctive impact on women -- issues involving pregnancy, the draft, sex discrimination, abortion and maternal rights in child custody cases and cases involving limitation and termination of parental rights.
"I don't believe women have cornered the market on niceness or sensitivity," says Judith Lichtman of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, "But I think that women often have a perspective that needs to be heard from and counted when there are deliberations that affect them."
Nancy Thompson, former head of the Republican Women's Task Force and a Ford supporter in 1976, is out of the campaign this year. She notes that Reagan said one of his first appointments to the court would be a woman. "He didn't say the first," says Thompson. "As far as I'm concerned it's just one more line."
And from Ronald Reagan, it's not worth falling for.