FEMINIST LEADERS have been noticeably quiet since the November election, understandably so. They stand accused of selling the Democratic Party a bill of goods about the women's vote, and not delivering.
Not for the first time, the events stood the conventional wisdom on its ear. Doubtless, it won't be the last.
1984, you will remember, was to be the year of the gender gap. Feminists leaders told us that women were fighting mad about the way Ronald Reagan had treated them and were ready to throw the president out. Walter F. Mondale appeared to buy this theory. He acted as if he had sealed the deal by picking Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman ever to appear on a presidential ticket, as his running mate.
Women, in the end, didn't embrace Mondale en masse. A majority of women voted for Reagan, although they were less supportive of him than men. Estimates vary on how much less supportive they were -- GOP polls put it at 2 percent; CBS at 4 percent; ABC at 8 percent and NBC at 9 percent.
This unexpected outcome has set off a new round of mythmaking. The gender gap debate has been turned upside down. We are now told the new gender gap is the Democratic Party's problems with men, not the Republicans' with women.
Democrats, to be sure, have a problem attracting the support of white males. But they also have problems with almost every other group of voters, except blacks. Now there's a chance the Democrats may adopt a new conventional wisdom about the gender gap without learning some real lessons from 1984.
Lesson One: Women's groups did increase female interest in politics last year. According to the Census Bureau, 61 percent of women eligible voted in November, a 2 percent increase over 1980 and 1976. The male turnout was 59 percent, the same as in 1980.
Lesson Two: Republican strategists understood the women's vote better in 1984 than did the Democrats, and did more to cultivate it. While the Democrats and their women occupied the headlines last year, Republicans were quietly at work behind the scenes. They used a combination of science and horse sense to diffuse the women's vote.
Richard Wirthlin, Reagan's pollster, began noticing Reagan's problem with women as early as October 1980, a month before the election. Wirthlin's post- election polling found 7 percent fewer women than men voted for Reagan.
The next year he and other GOP pollsters began looking at women voters in a systematic way, and research results were carefully considered as the administration made policy, according to Wirthlin.
It is not hard to imagine the part the women's vote had to play in the appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court, and of Elizabeth H. Dole and Margaret Heckler to the Cabinet.
GOP research intensified as the 1984 election approached. About 45,000 women were polled. One piece of barnyard common sense, downplayed among feminists groups, proved especially helpful. "We realized that all women aren't the same," says Wirthlin. "So we broke women down into 64 different categories, depending on age, whether they were married or single, working or nonworking." Not suprisingly, Reagan had different strengths and weaknesses with each group.
Older women, for example, were concerned about inflation and were slow to acknowledge the economic recovery. Others were angry about the president's opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion, the war and peace issue and the administration's cutbacks in social programs -- issues that feminists believed would be the president's undoing. Still other women were turned off by Democrats' talking of ERA and abortion as the only issues of concern to women.
The 64 groups were later compressed to eight. Each group was given a name, alphabetically from Alice, Betty, Carolyn and Doris to Helen, who represented the strongest anti-Reagan group -- unmarried, unemployed women under 25. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Wirthlin's polling found that Reagan did extremely well among young, working women (given the name Alice).
Using data that showed each group of women's concerns, Republicans targeted messages at each in their television ads, direct mail and campaign appearances. The basic strategy was to sell the Reagan economic program as a resounding success. Ferraro was dealt with not as a woman, but as a "New York liberal."
A "smart girl, dumb boy" TV commercial was targeted at women climbing the career ladder, for example. A subtle appeal to economic self-interest, it showed a young, professional woman discussing Reagan's economic recovery with a doubtful young man at a bus stop. When the bus stopped, only the woman climbed aboard. She symbolically rode off to bigger and better things, with, of course, Ronald Reagan.
Other appeals were directed at women in general. Women candidates and office holders were showcased as never before, both at the GOP National Convention and at campaign stops.
Republican Jan Meyers, who ran successfully for Congress in Kansas, attributes this prominence to Ferraro, who she says had "a very positive impact" on her campaign. Ferraro's nomination, Meyers says, put all women candidates into the spotlight, gave them credibility and forced the Republican Party to pay serious attention to women voters.
The Mondale campaign, by comparison, did little research on the women's vote. It did not target advertising at women as a group. (Ferraro appeared in only one ad, aired at the close of the campaign.) It embraced the symbolism of the women's vote, but did little to cultivate it beyond voicing support for the ERA and legalized abortion.
Ethel Klein, a Columbia University political scientist, argues that the Democrats, in effect, forfeited the women's vote.
The 1984 election illustrates that the women's vote cannot be captured by nominating women candidates alone," she has written. "It is an issue vote and is triggered by discussions of pressing national policies that incorporate women's perspectives. By not focusing on the substantive concerns of women, the Democrats provided a vacuum in which the Republican message could diffuse the women's vote.