When you look at politics from the Washington perspective, it is easy to conclude that nothing much is changing. Easy, and mistaken. Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill push and shove at each other like a couple of over-age boxers, and we in the press report their scuffling as if the outcome of the bout really might shape our future. Meantime, out of the spotlight of national attention, changes are taking place which will have incomparably greater effects.
One of those changes unquestionably is the reach for political power of women in America. That reach will be dramatized once again this weekend when the National Women's Political Caucus holds its biennial meeting in San Antonio. Reagan and O'Neill won't be there, but at least four of the six Democratic presidential hopefuls will be-- having discerned where power is heading.
But it does not take attendance by men to certify the importance of what women are achieving in the political realm. They are finding for themselves that they can overcome the barriers in their way.
It has been supposed, for example, that Reagan's policies have created a "gender gap" that is a heavy burden for other Republicans--especially women candidates and especially those who must run in areas of high unemployment. Well, two weeks ago, Republicans tripled their strength in the state senate of recession- wracked Rhode Island, going from seven to 21 of the 50 seats. Eight of the nine women elected that day were Republicans.
It has been the case, also, that women candidates have been hobbled by the lack of money and the lack of contacts with potential donors that male candidates enjoy just by virtue of being male. Well, last week here, the Minnesota Women's Campaign Fund marked its first anniversary with a reception at which it reported it had raised over $160,000 in 12 months to support women candidates in this state.
These are but two isolated examples of a national trend. The women's movement has developed a momentum that is irreversible.
Rep. Claudine Schneider, who pioneered for Republican women in Rhode Island with her election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1980, says there is no mystery to the success of women and Republicans in the recent state senate contests. The long-dominant Democrats had set the stage by attempting an arrogant legislative gerrymander that outraged both the public and the courts and delayed the election far past its normal November date. Schneider worked with GOP state chairman John A. Holmes Jr. to recruit credible women candidates.
"We don't have a gender gap problem in Rhode Island," Schneider said. "Our state Republican platform endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment and pledged to deal with the legitimate human problems in our economy. We are seen as a responsible, progressive party, and the women candidates embody those qualities."
More and more women are earning--and paying--their own way in politics. The fund- raising effort celebrated here last week has its counterpart in at least nine other states and on the national level. It began in Minnesota when Marlene Johnson, a small-business owner who was elected as lieutenant governor on the Democratic Farmer-Labor ticket last November, encouraged a number of Republican and Democratic women to pledge $1,000 each to launch the fund. A year later, it has received 120 gifts of $1,000 each--almost all from women--and 446 others averaging $75 apiece.
In 1982, the fund made contributions, almost all of them the maximum allowed by state law, to 31 women candidates--16 running for the first time. Fifteen of the 31 were winners, and many turned up at the reception to say how much the unsolicited and unexpected gift of $750 or $1,000 from other women had meant to them.
Geri Joseph, a former Democratic National Committee official, party fund-raiser and ambassador, said she has found raising money for this cause "a cinch" compared with anything else she has tried. "There is so much receptivity, you hardly have to give them a sales pitch at all. Republicans or Democrats, they just feel the time has arrived."
The evidence is overwhelming that for women, the time has arrived. And that fact is likely to be a lot more important in the long run than the jawing of the old men in Washington.