The Democratic presidential candidates have forgotten--inexplicably--that a woman spurned is trouble. Too bad, since the female electorate has been poised to re-prove the existence of the gender gap since its discovery in 1982, and the activist leadership is talking about turning the election around for the Democrats with massive registration and get-out-the-women vote projects. Women activists are excited about the chance to make a historic difference with the women's vote in 1984. Yet, one wonders why any Democratic woman would go to the polls at all. (More to come from the National Women's Political Caucus meeting in San Antonio this weekend.)
The presidential candidates are simply not talking to women. No doubt they have heard about the anti-new-woman climate in the country and have chosen to ignore women rather than kick up dust. In addition to a national impatience and annoyance with women who are trying to change their own lives, the fear that they are also out to change the behavior of men hangs in the air.
The candidates--frozen, and no wonder-- pledge love and fidelity to the female electorate and not one imaginative, pragmatic, intelligent program. Almost to a man, they have admitted that they are afraid to speak to women lest they make an offensive remark by mistake. How disappointing that men striving for the presidency are so unfamiliar with the feelings of half the nation.
The climate is confusing women candidates, too. Is it a turnoff to men, and to other women, to be a strong advocate of women's rights? The discovery that large numbers of middle-aged women did not vote for women seeking office in 1982 is leading female congressional and statewide candidates to lessen, publicly, their suport of feminist goals; privately, they are storing their passion in the closet.
Since any poll of women voters is led, after a common concern for peace, by women's economic issues, why do women running for office not make such issues a strong priority? Is it because women are afraid that, in addition to the voters, they could turn off party support? Quite probably. And male political consultants mistakenly advise women candidates that they have the women's vote by the fact of their being women, that the imperative is to win the votes of men. Not true. Women and men, equally, need to be convinced.
The essence of women--not all, but most--is reason and caring and commitment; little heart here for playing hardball. More, the purist democratic spirit among the leadership consistently prevents consensus. So anyone who wants to do business with the cookie-cutter lineup of candidates must be willing to use unfamiliar, perhaps even uncomfortable, strategies to gain attention, to get appropriate responses, to win a few.
I point, as example, to the replies from the presidential candidates to the 200 women leaders who asked for their thinking on women's issues. The answers contained more rhetoric than programmatic change or certain implementation. That effort failed, as have those before it, to alter the traditional nature of replies to the requests of women when these requests are made without some leverage.
It is no secret that the greatest handicap for women in electoral politics is the lack of money. Neither the party nor the presidential candidates have wept or bled or sympathized or given us a realistic commitment of support. One might imagine that they would (after Heckler and Dole and O'Connor, the latter two vice presidential possibilities) showcase women and brag of Democratic support for women candidates. But no, women are too sensitive a subject. Even in view of the recent intelligence that women are capable of winning the election for a male president, a male-dominated party and a country run by men.
Whatever claims are made after election day 1984, one that will surely make news is the number of women versus men voting for and against President Reagan. The figures will, if things stay as they are, reflect the lack of enthusiasm among women voters, not the depth of their concern about various issues, and certainly not the potential of their power at the polls. The consequences of that are serious, for once the gender gap is less than definitive, this clear and precious ability of women will be relegated to that great dumping ground where lie equal pay, affirmative action, child care and proper programs for women who live in poverty.
If, by magic, it were my move, if I called the shots, I would work for an open Democratic convention and the airing of the needs of women. I am hardly alone. Every Democrat, except for those behind the declared candidates, would welcome such a scene. However, according to most political women, scarcely a man in the U.S. Senate would qualify for convention- wide suport by women, based upon his commitment to women's rights, his allegiance to women as a priority.
The prevailing wisdom is that Reagan, with continuing upward economic indicators, has his job for another four years. This election is all uphill for the Democrats. Is there a helpful lesson in recent political history? Tom Bradley, who could have won, lost the race to be governor of California, for two reasons: blacks did not come out and vote, and his campaign manager forgot--or chose not--to get out the women's vote.
The Democrats believe that the women's vote is theirs, that women are so strongly against Reagan that they will accept any Democratic nominee. Not true. Some of the women's vote, yes, but on Nov. 7, 1984, the party could feel much like Bradley felt the morning after the 1982 election. Without enough of the women's vote you cannot win.