President Reagan's political problem with women--the "gender gap"--dominated today's meeting of the biennial convention of the National Women's Political Caucus here. In torrents of ridicule, derision, hisses, boos and sarcasm, delegates belonging to both parties denounced his policies and talked of breaking with caucus tradition to support an opponent.
Kathy Wilson, a Republican who chairs the 77,000-member caucus, opened today's session by labeling Reagan "a dangerous man." She urged him not to seek reelection, saying, "Mr. President, one term is enough . . . as a matter of fact, it is entirely too much."
Wilson was followed on the podium by another Republican, Patricia Bailey, a Carter-appointed member of the Federal Trade Commission, who leveled a blistering attack on Reagan's policies toward women. "Benign bewilderment in response to the women's revolution is a license to bigotry," she said.
The dissatisfaction with Reagan was summed up another way by Mary Stanley, chairman of the caucus' GOP contingent, who was sporting a button popular here: "I am a Republican woman and I want my party back." (Other women wore buttons that read: "Jane Wyman was right.")
There was talk among Democratic and Republican delegates that the caucus will break its tradition of 12 years and endorse a candidate, other than Reagan, for president next year. Wilson called it "a possibility" but said it is too early to make specific plans.
Reagan has been the whipping boy of this meeting of the caucus, which had always prided itself on bipartisanship and mainstream activism. As the politician whose lower support from women than men led to the coining of the term "gender gap," Reagan has given many of the 2,000 activists gathered here a new sense of political influence.
"I've been a woman for 44 years. And suddenly this week I am chic," said Ann Lewis, political director of the Democratic National Committee. "The existence of a measurable definable difference in voting patterns between men and women is the second most important thing to happen to the women's political movement. The first was suffrage."
Network exit polls from the 1980 presidential campaign showed that 56 percent of men voted for Reagan compared with 47 percent of women. More recently, the difference between Reagan's approval rating among men and women has been fluctuating between 10 and 20 percentage points. Similar gaps showed up in a variety of gubernatorial and senatorial races last November.
"We have a wonderful phenomenon called the gender gap that is really opening eyes like you've never seen," said Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro (D-N.Y.), a leader of the fight for the proposed Women's Economic Equity Act, a package involving insurance, pensions, dependent support and child care. She predicted the measure will be enacted this session.
"It's amazing how all of a sudden people are beginning to understand what pension fairness is all about," Ferraro said.
Rep. Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.) agreed, saying, "We have got them exactly where we want them."
While much of the talk in the workshops has been about the nuts and bolts of women's issues--pay equity, freedom of choice on abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment--the overwhelming theme of the weekend has been traditional politics. For the partisan Democrats who are here, a continuing gender gap promises rewards: bloc voting in favor of Democrats. Five of the six declared Democratic candidates for president in 1984 are to make speeches and respond to questions from a panel here Sunday.
The Republicans here are not inclined to minimize the gender gap's perils for their party. Commissioner Bailey took issue with the theory that as the economy improves the gender gap will begin to close.
She said she believes that, even though the polls are not sophisticated enough to find it, the real source of Reagan's troubles with women has less to do with economic issues than with the ERA and abortion.
Bailey said that by opposing the ERA while supporting a constitutional amendment on abortion Reagan is "giving us the following message: What we may carry in our bodies is constitutionally important, but we are not."
Republican campaign consultant John Deardourff, a long-time supporter of women's causes, said that cosmetic responses will not erase Reagan's political problems with women. The gender gap "does put in jeopardy what otherwise would be a pretty easy run for him," Deardourff said.
The handful of Republicans here, who tend to be far more progressive than others in their party, said they see the dangers for the GOP and seem unsure how to respond. The GOP caucus here today drew up a letter to Reagan, calling for him to support passage of the ERA, protect reproductive freedom and support the Economic Equity Act.
Few Republican women here believe that Reagan will make such a dramatic turnaround, and they worry that any White House concessions would be shrugged off with the same low-key response that greeted the president's appointment of two women to the Cabinet. "The take-two-appointments-and-call-me-in-the-morning stuff just won't work," said a Republican who asked not to be identified.
One Republican trying to sound a cautionary note against the palpable anger here is Mary Louise Smith, a former GOP national chairman. "I don't think it would serve us at all well to have all women with one party," she warned. "The blacks have discovered that you get taken for granted."