The dream that 1984 might be the year of the woman in American politics turned to ashes Tuesday night with the landslide defeat of Walter F. Mondale and Geraldine A. Ferraro, the nation's first female candidate for vice president.
Women won some significant victories, including election of a second female governor and the first female state attorney general, and they held their own in Congress. But a morning-after assessment of the polling results suggests that Ferraro did not draw disproportionate numbers of women to the Democratic ticket and may have turned some voters away instead.
Exit polls by ABC News found that only 11 percent of the voters polled considered the Ferraro candidacy important, and of those who did, 44 percent chose President Reagan over the Democratic ticket.
The polls showed that the so-called "gender gap," by which a much larger number of women than men voted against Reagan, has narrowed somewhat since 1980. While most female political activists blamed that shift on the Reagan landslide, the exit polls also made clear that Mondale's choice of Ferraro may have hurt the ticket rather than helped it.
Among male voters polled by ABC News, 29 percent said the choice of Ferraro made them less likely to vote Democratic, while 12 percent said it made them more likely to vote for the Democrats. Even among female voters, only 19 percent said having Ferraro on the ticket made them more likely to vote Democratic and 24 percent had the opposite opinion.
Female political activists described themselves yesterday as "saddened but undaunted" by the Mondale-Ferraro loss and pointed to a number of other gains by women in state and local elections across the country, including the election of Vermont's first female governor and Rhode Island's election of the first female state attorney general in U.S. history.
Judy Goldsmith, head of the National Organization for Women, said, "The loss is not as significant in terms of its importance to women's candidacies as the presence of Gerry Ferraro on the ticket. The first woman was nominated to the Democratic ticket, and Gerry Ferraro conducted her campaign with integrity and intelligence and was an admirable pioneer in that capacity."
"She has helped to validate women's participation in the political process and has helped women view themselves as possible contenders for top political office," Goldsmith said.
In Vermont, former lieutenant governor Madeleine M. Kunin became the first female governor in the state's history and the third Democrat to hold the job in 130 years. Her opponent, state Attorney General John J. Easton, conceded defeat around noon yesterday after a race so close that the lead changed hands several times overnight.
Kunin, with about 50.05 percent of the vote, barely squeaked by Vermont's constitutional requirement that the winner take at least 50 percent of the vote. With three minor candidates on the ballot in addition to Kunin and Easton, the final decision on the governor could have been left to the Republican-dominated state House of Representatives.
Kunin said in a telephone interview that she considered her election a victory for other female candidates. "Every time a woman gets elected to higher office, it opens up the process for other women. It makes it that less of a phenomenon. . . . We each have to win on our own terms and our own constituencies. . . but it makes it more acceptable for others to be there, less of a novelty."
The nation's only other female governor is Martha Layne Collins of Kentucky.
In Rhode Island, a former nun was elected attorney general, the first woman to hold that state office in the nation. Republican Arlene Violet, who quit her religious order to stay in politics, defeated a three-term incumbent in a close race.
In addition, two new female lieutenant governors were elected: Harriett Woods of Missouri and Ruth Meiers of North Dakota, both Democrats.
In the Senate, incumbent Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) won her bid for reelection. But all nine female challengers lost Senate bids. That leaves the number of women in the Senate at two, including Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.)
The 20 female House incumbents who were running for new terms all won their races. In addition, Republican Helen Delich Bentley narrowly upset veteran Rep. Clarence Long (D-Md.), and Republican Jan Meyers won a race for an open seat in Kansas' 3rd District against Democrat Jack Reardon.
In Utah's 2nd District, Democrat Frances Farley was trailing Republican David Smith Monson by 143 votes, but with 2,500 absentee ballots not counted, the race was still considered a tossup.
Two female members of Congress will not be returning. Ferraro gave up her seat to run for vice president, and Rep. Katie Hall (D-Ind.) lost in the primary. That means that the number of female House members will either remain constant or will increase by one if Farley wins in Utah.
The exit polls also made it clear that some of the special issues affecting women may not play an important role in determining the presidency. For example, only 11 percent of the female voters interviewed described themselves as strong feminists who support the Equal Rights Amendment, and 77 percent of them voted for Mondale. Of the remaining 89 percent, three of every five voted for Reagan.
Female political activists said yesterday that they do not consider those numbers overwhelming.
Rosalie Whelan of the National Women's Education Fund added: "I'm clearly disappointed, but you do not make serious social change in one election. . . . We [the women's movement] have been at this for about a decade. The white male establishment has had control for 200 years."