In a marked departure from historical political patterns, women have begun looking at the president and the Republican Party in a distinctly different way than men do.
The shift has taken place at a time of growing political awareness among women, when they have overtaken men as a majority of voters and when the membership of feminist groups that are critical of President Reagan has increased dramatically. The change could have a major impact on the congressional elections this year.
In the past, women and men have differed on some issues--such as war and peace, the environment and nuclear power. But, according to Gallup polls and other indexes, men and women have held similar views about every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower. And during the 1970s, there was no significant difference in party affiliation between men and women, according to the Gallup organization.
But Ronald Reagan has apparently changed all that. Since 1980, women have taken a far harsher view of Reagan than have men. And they've been far more reluctant to think of themselves as Republicans.
A recent Washington Post-ABC poll, for example, found women disapproved of the way Reagan handles his job by 50 to 43 percent. Men, by contrast, approved of the president's performance, 53 to 41 percent.
The poll, conducted the first week of March, found 45 percent of the women considered themselves Democrats, and 17 percent, Republicans. Meanwhile, the Republicans have been making inroads among men, with 33 percent identifying themselves as Democrats, and 23 percent, Republicans.
As late as November, 1979, 5 percent more women than men in a Washington Post poll said they considered themselves Republicans.
In addition, 55 percent of the women surveyed in the March Post poll said they would vote for a Democrat in next fall's congressional elections, 29 percent for a Republican.
This split between the preferences of men and women showed up in last fall's gubernatorial election in Virginia. A Post poll the week before the election found women preferred Democrat Charles S. Robb by 56 to 39 percent over Republican J. Marshall Coleman; men preferred Coleman, 49 to 46 percent.
Kathy Wilson, a Republican who chairs the National Women's Political Caucus, said the Reagan administration's "alarming insensitivity" to women on a host of issues has activated feminists. "I've visited 33 states during the last year," she said. "I mean to say women really do not like Ronald Reagan out there."
But there is wide disagreement over the meaning of the shift. Republicans tend to dismiss it as an aberration that will disappear. "What women are doing is adopting a wait-and-see attitude," said Betty Heitman, co-chairman of the Republican National Committee. "I think the gap will close."
Some, like Ann F. Lewis, political director of the Democratic National Committee, see the shift as part of a major political realignment between the parties. "The only reason that it hasn't been noticed is the people involved are women," Lewis said.
"The right-wing takeover of the Republican Party" has driven moderate women from the party, she said. "The Republicans have an opportunity, which I don't think they will take, to reach out to women. It is not too late for them."
Others, like Ruth B. Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute's Center for the Study of Women in Politics at Rutgers University, think the gender gap shows that there's a potential women's voting bloc.
"It can no longer be assumed there is no difference between men and women politically," she said. "Women should realize that they are potentially powerful and that is something they've never had before."
But professional pollsters are more cautious.
Andrew Kohut, president of the Gallup organization, said it is too early to tell if any permanent realignment is taking place. "It's very difficult to say how much of this is for the moment, or for real," he said. "Certainly it's been there throughout the Reagan administration, and women have to be big targets for Democrats in 1982."
Patrick Caddell, a Democratic pollster, agrees with that assessment. But he noted that during the past 15 years, a significant gap has developed between the views of men and women on many issues.
"What we've seen is a dramatic breaking-away of women," Caddell added. "They don't tend to follow their husbands or men in general anymore. That's a revolution of enormous political consequences."
Reagan's "women problem" first began to attract attention in 1980. He won 55 percent of the male vote and 47 percent of the female vote--a gap of 8 percentage points. The median gap in the 20 Gallup polls taken during Reagan's first year in office was 9 percentage points, almost double that of any president since Eisenhower, when Gallup began using its current sampling procedures.
Originally, pollsters attributed the gap to the "war and peace" issue. Women, traditionally more oriented toward peace, feared Reagan's election would lead to war. Those same fears linger today.
The Washington Post-ABC poll in early March found 36 percent of the women surveyed approved of Reagan's foreign policy; 49 percent disapproved. A more recent Post-ABC poll found that women, by 48 to 33 percent, disapproved of the president's handling of the El Salvador situation; men approved, 48 to 42 percent.
But the uneasiness among women over Reagan's policies goes far deeper now.
Much of it centers on the economy. Women, polls indicate, have always been more skeptical of "Reaganomics" than men. And for the past year, they've expressed serious doubts about the president's tax cuts, military spending increases, and cutbacks in social programs.
Women now disapprove of the president's handling of the economy by 56 to 48 percent, according to the Post-ABC poll. By 2 to 1, they say Reagan should change his economic program.
Women are also more pessimistic than men about the direction the economy is taking, and prospects that their own economic situation will improve soon.
"Women have become the have-nots in society," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women. "There is a high percentage of women, perhaps 10 to 15 percent, who feel their economic interests are not being served by the Reagan administration."
"Women are behaving for the first time in their own economic self-interest," she added. "These are bad economic times for women. And they are scared."
Almost one-fifth of the nation's families are now headed by unmarried women and more than half of all women work. As a group, they are paid less than men, and, because they lack seniority, are often laid off before men during a recession, Smeal said.
The Reagan budget cuts have hit poor women hard.
A few numbers, compiled by the National Women's Conference, put this into perspective: 80 percent of families receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children are headed by women; 61 percent of Medicaid recipients are women; two-thirds of families living in government-subsidized housing are headed by women; 69 percent of food stamp recipients are women, and 67 percent of the clients of the Legal Services Corp. are women. All are programs that have been cut by the Reagan administration.
Ironically, polls don't show a gap between the sexes on such traditional feminist issues as the Equal Rights Amendment and legalized abortion.
But Rutgers professor Mandel, author of a new book on women in politics called "In the Running," said the impact of these issues on women shouldn't be underestimated. They brought hundreds of women into politics on both sides of the issues and gave many the desire and training to seek political office, she said.
Reagan's opposition to ERA and legalized abortion (and related moves on Capitol Hill) and the president's failure to appoint more women to jobs in his administration have galvanized feminist organizations. (Of the 400 Reagan appointments requiring Senate confirmation last year, 44, or 11 percent, were women, according to the National Women's Political Caucus.)
The membership of the National Abortion Rights Action League, which supports legalized abortion, grew 50 percent to 135,000 since the 1980 election. The Iowa Abortion Rights League, a NARAL affiliate, enlisted more than 550 new members in two recent weeks through newspaper and radio ads.
NOW, meanwhile, has gained 117,000 new members since Reagan took office. And just in the last month, it raised $1.3 million for its last-ditch campaign for the passage of the ERA.
Traditionally bipartisan feminist groups have also become increasingly anti-Reagan and anti-Republican during the last year.
"With the rise of the Republican right and the Reagan administration, Republican political leadership has become a major obstacle to ERA ratification," says one NOW letter, which notes the ERA is rapidly becoming a "partisan issue." NOW pickets appear virtually every time Reagan ventures outside Washington.
In the past, the differences between parties have been fuzzier on ERA and abortion. The ERA, for example, was first introduced in Congress in 1923 by a Republican, and the party platform--beginning in 1940 and every four years until 1980--called for its adoption. Presidents Ford and Nixon, as well as a host of senior party officials, supported the ERA.
Republicans like Wilson of the National Women's Political Caucus now worry that the party could lose its traditional foothold among women.
"This is a critical time for both the Republican Party and women. If the former doesn't accommodate the latter, its time in the sun will be brief," she said. "They're going to be saying, 'We let the Democrats have it because we alienated 53 percent of the population.' "
GOP Co-chairman Heitman said she doesn't think the ERA or abortion will be a major factor in this year's congressional elections. "There are so many things more important to women than the ERA," she said. "Most women feel the goals of the women's movement have been achieved."
"I don't feel we Republicans will have any problem with the women's vote."