This election will go down in history as the first national election in which the women's vote made the difference. "The gender gap," which has haunted the Republican Party since polls began showing that women were going to vote differently from men, did not turn out to be a ghost. It is now a formidable reality that will change the course of American politics. Women favored Democrats over Republicans by 21 points in congressional races, according to the ABC exit polls, and they provided margins of victory for Democratic candidates from congressional districts to major statehouses.

The influence this gives women voters on issues they feel strongly about, ranging from nuclear war to gun control to unemployment, as well as women's rights, is incalculable. What is now clear is that American politicians need to take the women's vote as seriously as any of the other voting blocs that dominate elections.

This year, women asserted themselves as voters, as serious candidates, and as people who wanted their concerns and issues addressed. Candidates, both male and female, who used women's rights and reproductive rights issues in their campaigns generally did well. Eight of 12 gubernatorial candidates who backed prochoice positions when abortion was an issue won.

Harriett Woods, who lost by only two points to Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), firmly believes that her prochoice position was instrumental in turning a long-shot campaign into a near-win.

Candidates who ignored the women's vote or insulted it paid dearly. In Texas, Republican Gov. William P. Clements Jr., who spent $12 million in his campaign, remarked in a magazine interview that he could not find a housewife qualified to serve on the Public Utilities Commission. His opponent, Texas Attorney General Mark White, turned that into a campaign issue and produced a stunning upset, scoring a 17-point margin of victory among women compared to an edge of only eight points among men.

Ann Richards, a feminist who emphasized the fact she was a woman candidate, ran even better than White did in her race for Texas treasurer, outpolling him by 200,000 votes and beating her opponent by a margin of 25 points.

In Michigan, where Republican candidate Richard Headlee made a campaign issue of his opposition to ERA, the Democratic candidate won because of the women's vote. Michael Hais of Nordhaus Research, who polled for Democratic winner James Blanchard, says Blanchard led by 20 to 22 points among women in the exit polls, but only broke even among men. He won by a margin of 53 to 45 percent, with 2 percent to a fringe candidate. While jobs were the overriding factor in the election, says Hais, Blanchard's support for women's rights positions on ERA and abortion "did make a difference." Blanchard also chose as his running mate former representative Martha Griffiths, a longtime champion of ERA.

The women's vote gave the gubernatorial victory to Mario Cuomo in New York, where he had the support of women's organizations. The National Organization for Women, which endorsed Frank Lautenberg when he was 14 points behind in the Senate race in New Jersey against Millicent Fenwick, can make a strong case that its endorsement, which he capitalized on, was the turning point in that campaign.

Women increased their presence in state legislatures from 12 to 14 percent, and more than doubled their presence, to nine women, in the Florida Senate. NOW, which had targeted both the Florida and Illinois legislatures following the defeat of ERA, is now claiming that enough women's rights legislators were elected to pass ERA in both of those states.

While the unemployment rate was the overriding issue in Robert Wise Jr.'s campaign against a New Right congressman in West Virginia, that race illustrates the impact of women and their issues in politics. His campaign was run overwhelmingly by women. He ran on a prochoice voting record. He got $5,000 from National Abortion Rights Action League. He won by 23,000 votes over a candidate who had won by 10,000 votes in 1980.

Women made gains in this election that go far, far beyond the highly visible losses by four women running for major offices. This election demonstrated in hard numbers that candidates can lose by ignoring women's concerns and they can win big by appealing to the women's vote. Women voters have staked a claim on American politics that will influence elections for years to come.