For President Reagan, this has been a week of overtures. He made an overture to the Soviet Union on arms control and he made an overture to an organization of moderate women on gender gap control. Neither responded terribly encouragingly.
Despite a membership that is 45 percent Republican, the American Association of University Women gave a chilly response to a White House move to have the president speak at its annual convention. AAUW President Mary Purcell, after consulting with the organization's board, issued a statement indicating that the group "presumed" the contact came because of the AAUW's long commitment to improving education.
Nevertheless, she concluded, "Considering the disparity betweeen AAUW's goals and the policies of the Reagan administration towards women, we are very surprised at this initiative from the White House." At this point in the minuet, the White House decided that an appearance can't be fit into the president's schedule after all.
The AAUW, formed 102 years ago, is the largest and oldest organization promoting women's rights. President Reagan would have been the first president to address its annual meeting. That he got the cold shoulder is an indication of just how disaffected many moderate, well-educated women voters are.
All is not lost, however. Either by luck or design, President Reagan is moving in two areas that are going to win him points with women voters.
With at least one Democratic candidate playing catch-up on the issue, President Reagan is focusing the nation's attention on the state of education. This Wednesday, he held a luncheon meeting with educators, school administrators and Albert Shanker, head of the American Federation of Teachers. According to Shanker, there was agreement on the need for teacher competency testing and tougher curricula. There was also, according to Shanker, some discussion on merit pay for teachers.
Voting mothers in the 25 to 40 age group, where the gender gap is showing up most strongly, are now seeing firsthand the difference in the public school education they received and that which their children are receiving. This group of voters, which has been deluged with stories about high school graduates ill-equipped for college or employment, is going to be particularly receptive to a presidential initiative on educational recovery--if he focuses on curriculum and competency, and not a narrow, thorny issue such as tuition tax credits.
Women have also been showing increasing concern about the arms race, both in the polls and in the activities of women leaders and their organizations. The AAUW's past president, Mary Grefe, a Republican, was instrumental in putting together last year's Women's Leadership Conference on National Security. A second conference was held this year which focused on U.S.-Soviet relations, and it attracted several hundred women from 38 states. For three days, they listened to numerous American experts, and several Soviet experts on the United States, discuss relations between the two super-powers.
"The idea that arms control is something you give the Soviet Union as a carrot for good behavior, I think that is discredited, " said conference organizer Anne H. Cahn, a disarmament expert in the Carter Administration.
Women voters have traditionally reacted conservatively to political change. Disapproval of President Reagan's policies has been constant on the part of a significant number of women voters, and at least part of it, according to the pollsters, stems from their fears that he could plunge the nation into war. The flexibility he showed this week toward arms negotiations with the Soviet Union will be far more appealing to those voters than the belligerent tone the administration has taken until recently.
If the president can convince women voters that he is adopting new priorities such as education, and new positions--as opposed to new postures--on disarmament, he may find a measure of detente, at least with them.
He is, after all, talking about safeguarding the nation's health, safety and education, concerns which have been the special province of American women ever since they opened the doors of the one-room schoolhouse.