President Reagan has appointed two women to his cabinet--a woman a week, as one member of Congress put it--and the response has been a resounding "That's nice." There has been none of the gushingly favorable ink that he got with the appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court. Clearly the administration is trying to respond to its low rating with women, but it's a safe bet that these appointments will have virtually no effect on the way Reagan is perceived by women voters.
They have become too disaffected with his policies to be courted successfully with appointments, which after all are only catching up lost ground, rather than breaking new territory. While President Reagan has repeatedly shown a talent for turning troubles into triumphs, his administration has seemed oddly incapable of coming up with responses to the gender gap--despite the fact that an administration analyst has warned that the gap could prove disastrous for the Republican Party in 1984.
The answers the administration has come up with so far, including the "50 States Project," which involved removing sexist language from state laws, and the appointment of two women to the Cabinet, are essentially irrelevant to the issues causing him trouble with women voters. They are '60s and '70s style responses to problems of the '80s.
The administration's own polling is showing that inflation, the economy, unemployment, and foreign affairs are the overriding concerns of women voters. The report on the gender gap prepared by White House analyst Ronald H. Hinckley singles out the growth of households headed by females as an important demographic trend that doesn't lend itself to "Band-Aid approaches." This group of women voters, many of whom are poor, black and on welfare, according to the report, shows the highest level of disaffection with Reagan of any group of voters.
Last December, when Congress was considering a $5.4 billion public works job proposal, Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-N.Y.) spoke out eloquently on behalf of the millions of unemployed women whose plight, as she gently put it, has not always "received the attention it deserves." She cited Bureau of Labor Statistics findings that unemployment among single women heading households in November was 12.5 percent, more than 3 percent higher than the rate for white men over the age of 20.
The jobs bill was abandoned by Congress in the face of a Reagan veto threat, but a working group of women's organizations, including the League of Women Voters and the Business and Professional Women, is now trying to make sure that any jobs bill that comes out of this session of Congress will not subtly favor unemployed white males.
This is the kind of issue that has become important to organizations representing women. They also want to eliminate gender discrimination in the insurance industry and are lobbying for stronger child support enforcement, for childcare initiatives that help women heading households, and for increased tax credits for parents using day care. The Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues will be reintroducing the Economic Equity Act, which has numerous provisions reforming private pension plans to benefit women, including lowering the age of eligibility for participation and requiring payment of survivor's benefits to the widow of a vested worker who dies before retiring. It would permit homemakers to open independent retirement accounts and allow divorced women to include alimony in calculating how much they can contribute to IRAs.
The act also would give employers tax credits for hiring displaced homemakers and would provide for civil service pensions to be divided by state courts as part of divorce settlements.
The Economic Equity Act has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress and it is an act that President Reagan, as he shapes his State of the Union message, ought to consider supporting. It would help working women heading families, homemakers, and women who will become widows. Women voters who are concerned about their economic well-being will be far more impressed with aggressive support for the Economic Equity Act than they will be by putting women in the cabinet.
In bygone eras, such appointments were symbolic gestures that women voters liked. In the '80s, it is something they take for granted.