THE PRESIDENTIAL candidates seem to have discovered of late that women constitute the political majority in this country. Nice of them to have noticed. What they and many others are unaware of, however, are some of the factors that move women voters.
Rather, many of the candidates' appeals, as well as the media's assumptions, appear to be based on myths, hangovers from a distant or nonexistent past. To set the record straight consider the following myths that are still widely believed and compare them with the very different realities:
1. Women are more influenced than men by a candidate's personality. Rubbish. Studies make clear that women in recent elections have been no more influenced than men by their looks, style or personality of candidates. Women are just as inclined to be influenced by issues.
At times, of course, women on balance have differed considerably from men in their responses to candidates. Eisenhower, for example, received strong support among women, which pollster Louis Harris explained at the time as reflecting women's greater concern about the war in Korea and its rippling effects on price levels, wages, employment and stock prices (substance, not style). George Wallace in 1968 received support from half as many women as men. Women's reluctance to support extreme candidates, plus their reaction to the aggressive military policies of Wallace's running mate, Gen. Curtis LeMay (highly substantive matters), were cited as explanations for the difference.
The Kennedys, with the help of a personality-obsessed media, have been one of the largest sources of this myth -- and one of the best reasons to dismiss it. Many conveniently forget that in the fall of 1960, three MIT researchers reported on "the lag of [John F.] Kennedy's popularity among women." They properly attributed Nixon's relative popularity to the substantive fact that women saw "avoiding war by negotiation with Russian leaders" as the most important issue. By election day, however, women supported and opposed Kennedy in similar proportions as men.
Similarly, the fall of Sen. Edward Kennedy this year is often attributed to women's greater concern with the Chappaquiddick incident and his free and easy lifestyle with women. Not so. The Washington Post's own electoral surveys show no sign that women reacted any differently to Kennedy than men did.
The myth that women are more swayed by a candidate's personality has long allowed them to be disregarded as serious critics of public policy. But the fact is that on Nov. 4, they will base their decisions again on the candidates' policies to the same extent as will men.
2. Women and men support the same public policies. Women and men typically agree on a wide range of public policy questions, and women also disagree sharply among themselves on many issues. Obviously, influences other than sex -- education, income, region, race and ethnicity, age, occupation -- lead citizens to support some policies rather than others.
There are a few policy areas, though, where women and men have, on balance, often shown different preferences. Women, as has been widely noted this year, are consistently more reluctant for the nation to become involved in war. This pattern has been apparent since World War II, and it can be traced through studies on American intervention in Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, the Mideast, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. The difference is typified in a Gallup poll conducted in 1969 in which 64 percent of the women interviewed labeled themselves "doves," against 48 percent of the men.
Women's general tendency to oppose violence is reflected also in their greater support for gun control, opposition to capital punishment, and concern for safety in nuclear energy. In the aftermath of the Three Mile Island incident, George Gallup found that a larger majority of the men (71 percent) than women (59 percent) questioned were opposed to shutting down all nuclear plants at that time.
In at least some surveys, women have also been more supportive than men of social welfare policies such as Aid to Dependent Children and Social Security. On issues of unemployment and inflation, however, The Washington Post's own polls show no difference between the sexes this year.
3. Women Vote Less Than Men. For the first time since receiving the right to vote in 1920, as high a proportion of women as men voted for president in 1976, according to Census Bureau survey estimates. The significant point, however, is that almost 4 million more women than men went to the polls in 1976. Women outnumber men, particularly in the older age groups, and have outvoted men since 1964, when 1.8 million more women than men cast votes.
Women did lag about 10 percent, behind men in their voting rate for president in the 1950s and 1960s. However, that gap has been closed in recent elections. The critical point is that women hold the potential balance of power in choosing the next president -- to the extent they differ on balance from men on the issues.
4. When women vote, they vote just like their husbands. If we are going to indulge in this notion, we might at least start by getting rid of the sexism in the phrasing. It could just as easily be said that "when men vote, they vote just like their wives." But either way, to the extent that the idea suggests that one sex leads and the other follows, it is misguided.
This notion is rooted in early studies which assumed that husbands' and wives' similarities in candidate preference was prima facie evidence that women were heeding their men. Conveniently, in many of those studies only husbands were asked about their own and their wives' voting preferences. Thankfully, more recent researchers have asked wives their own opinions, and they have found something very different from the old follow-the-husband idea.
Not surprisingly, it turns out that people usually marry others with similar backgrounds and values, and that these factors, especially education, play the larger role when both mates support the same candidate. That is the chief reason why you will find many all-Carter and all-Reagan households. While wives and husbands certainly influence each other's opinions, the old compliant-mate myth doesn't hold.
5. Women are more conservative than men. This was true following the granting of suffrage in 1920. Women who were better educated and more well-to-do, and thus more conservative, voted in greater numbers than their less well-off sisters. This belief was also perpetuated by scholars and politicians through the 1940s, and women favored the Republican Party in 1952 to such an extent that Louis Harris included women in the emerging Republican majority he perceived then.
Since then, however, women and men have declared themselves to be Republicans and Democrats in similar proportions. Since 1968 younger women, especially those under 30, have more often identified themselves as Democrats; women over 60 have more often preferred the Republican Party.
A close examination of the age composition of the American electorate today suggests that what is believed to be a conservative female bias is, in reality, largely a function of age, not sex. Women outlive men in considerable numbers, and both genders tend to become more conservative with age.
In other words, the apparent conservatism of women today stems from the larger proportion of women past 60. This may help account for George Gallup's recent finding that more women than men endorse the Moral Majority of the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
6. Black women are the least involved group in the electorate. Nonsense. Black women have increased their rate of voting in the 1960s and 1970s at a faster pace than have black men and both white women and men. In 1976, black women under 55 went to the polls at a higher rate than black men. Black women are, in fact, a political enigma. Explanations that link voting to educational, occupational and economic status fall apart when used to explain their political participation.
Their increased voting rate is all the more remarkable because they have had such a long way to go to reach the turnout rate of black men. An estimated one-quarter of black women over 21 voted in 1952, a figure depressed by restrictive voter registration and literacy laws. In 1976, half of the eligible black women went to the polls. Today, blacks show a lag of 8 to 15 percentage points when compared with the voting rates of white women and men, but this difference masks the enormous strides made by blacks.
The political candidates would do well to keep all these myths and realities in mind. Recent polls show more women undecided about whom to vote for than are men. With many elections determined by as few as one or two votes in each precinct across the country, the reward for successfully addressing the concerns of women voters may be the Oval Office.