Gender Gaps

POLITICS

"IDON'T CROSS ANY bridges before I come to them, nor do I burn them." Such was the purposely evasive reply last November by newly elected governor of Kentucky Martha Layne Collins to reporter's questions concerning her Vice Presidential hopes, if any, in '34. In San Antonio this past summer, the National Women's Political Caucus--supposedly bipartisan--received a parade of Democratic Presidential hopefuls, and all of them gave at least vague assurances of a possible woman running mate and similar goodies in return for support against the GOP. Around the same time President Reagan made a completely innocent gaffe to a woman's group about the civilizing effect of women on men ("if it weren't for you we men would still be walking around in skins") and put both his advisors and the media in an uproar for days. The so-called "gender gap" has become one hot-political item.

What exactly is this "gender gap"? Why are both Democrats and Republicans eyeing it with increasing interest, the former with growing glee and the latter with growing discomfort? Why, after 63 years of women's suffrage, should the fact of being a female voter(or a male one for that matter) color a choice in the voting booth?

First off, it's a very real phenomenon, at least insofar as public opinion polls are real. In the sense in which the term was originally coined, that is, strictly referring to support of the President and his policies, the gap is considerable and apparently growing. Last fall Mr. Reagan's overall approval rating showed a nine-point differential between women and men polled by Newsweek. Individual ratings on issues--the economy, defense, foreign policy--showed similar variations. The Democrats have treated all of these poll results as potential election year gold. Not surprisingly, the White House and the Republican Party are not at all happy about these data, but the leadership seems wary and ultimately optimistic, which has been a familiar Reagan hallmark anyway. A "wait-and-see" attitude has apparently been adopted by Reagan ad his advisors.

Why are the Democrats viewing themselves as the automatic beneficiaries of this "gap"? After all, most of the polls simply ask variation of the "do you like Reagan?" theme. Only a few have asked choice questions (Reagan vs, Mondale, Republicans vs. Democrats) with little or no sign of a male/female split. When the question moves away from generalities and Reagan's image, it becomes much more complicated, and the Democrats don't look quite to attuned to the needs and aspiration of women as they would like to appear.

All six major Democratic campaign managers are men. Of the other women advisors apparently only two press secretaries, Maxine Isaacs for Walter Mondale and Kathy Bushkin for Gary Hart, wield any real influence. Similarly for the 'consultants" and other heavyweights who gravitate around campaigns: They are mostly men and this augurs ill for women's hopes in a Democratic cabinet in '85.

Contrast this to the Reagan Administration. For the first time in history, three women hod Cabinet-level posts simultaneously, all at the behest of Reagan--Jeanne Kirkpatrick at the U.N., Margaret Heckler at Health and Human Services, and Elizabeth Dole at the Department of Transportation. His lower-level appointments of women do not match up numerically with Jimmy Carter's at a similar point in Administration--95 to 113 for posts needing Senate confirmation, 10 to 18 for Federal judgeships--but he made history by appointing Sandra Day O'Vonnor to the Supreme Court. Also, comparison with Carter amounts to comparison with probably the most progressive President in history regarding the hiring of women. On balance, Mr. Reagan has certainly not had a poor record with respect to women in government, and it positively glows compared to the Democratic candidates' performance thus far.

WHY, THEN, DOES Ronald Reagan seem to be heading for an increasingly ominous (from the Republican point of view) male/female split in November? In his own defense Reagan has declared support for the "E" and the "R," but not the "A"--in short, for legislation, on both the state and federal level, to remove the remaining blemishes on legal equality. To this end, he has appointed a task force to search out egregious state laws discriminating against women, and to recommend corrective action. However, many such laws have been found, and none have been addressed by the Justice Department during the Administration's tenure. Certainly this glaring question mark could become part of the Democratic arsenal against the incumbent. It would lend some meat to the predominantly "image"-type denunciations thus far.

This leads to the "fairness" issue, and interestingly enough, the same Newsweek poll which showed an overall gap showed that economic and social policies, along with defense and foreign policy, have more importance for women than ERA and other "women's" issues. Reagan's well-known ideological desire for less government has produced the well-documented attack on a whole variety of social assistance programs. One of the great tragedies of the last 20 years is that women have increasingly borne a disproportionate share of this hardship.

Fully three quarters of America's elderly poor are women. Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the backbone of welfare, goes almost exclusively to women heads of families. Food stamps, Medicare, and some types of Social Security are predominantly consumed by poor women, often with children. The Administration's attempt to slash these programs has thus amounted unfortunately to a cut in aid to poor women. The widespread decay of the "traditional" family which actually produced this situation belies one of Reagan's (and Phyllis Shlafly's, et. al.) main objections to the ERA--that somehow it will promote further erosion of family values and of the place of the homemaker in society. However, both of these "traditional' concepts have taken such a beating over the last couple of decades that nothing Washington can do, short of totalitarian enforcement of morals, will either accelerate or retard this sad process.

Precisely because not many daddy-mommy-children arrangements along Reagan's line of thinking exist any longer, Republican Party ideology would not be sullied by an affirmation of the ERA. In fact, often forgotten in the current polarization is the GOP's traditional support of the Amendment and its spirit of human worth shared equally. Republican Congressmen were the first to introduce it, in 1923. The Republican Party was the first to call for it in a platform, in 1940. Since then, the Republican Convention has failed to approve it only three times, in '64, '68, and '80. The Democrats have affirmed it only four times in the same period. One of the Republicans' truly concrete objections--that women would be subject to a draft--could be solved by continuation of the current policy of non-combat designation for women in the volunteer military. Under an ERA, women probably would, and certainly should, be subject to a draft. Defending one's country is neither a feminine nor a masculine issue. It is simply a duty that should be shared equally by all, and excluding women from combat positions would not harm that spirit in the slightest.

We are left, then, with some sobering thoughts, and a clear-cut "male vs. female, Republican vs. Democrats' choice at all. Some Reagan initiatives have specifically benefited most women; a reduction of the "marriage penalty," an increase in child care tax credits, provisions for improved collection of a child support payments, and a proposed increase in the amount homemakers may contribute to tax-free IRA. It is indeed unfortunate that, in the process of carrying out as much of his ideological program as he can, Mr. Reagan has managed to hurt poor women and minorities disproportionately. Even extreme liberals must acknowledge that the primary reason for this lies in socioeconomic trends and changes far beyond the full control of any liberal democracy. But by the same token Mr. Reagan's failure to see these realities at all constitute a corresponding failure of the very same liberal democracy, and this will be an enduring problem for whoever sits in the Oval Office in 1985.

In fact, "gender gap" itself might be too narrowly defined. Women are apparently objecting to whole parts of Reagan's program, and not merely to specifically "feminist" areas. Should the Democrats necessarily see this in their favor? Or should both parties realize that women are now exerting an entirely new form of political strength, a form which might batter a male Democratic President just as harshly as a Republican, and which might move the entire political spectrum bodily leftward? If so, then a true feminist revolution may have started in 1980, when women voted significantly different from men for the first time. Perhaps the real gap may be found in other numbers--only 24 women in Congress; three Cabinet secretaries; 8.7 percent of the nation's mayors; 13.3 percent in state legislatures; about 15 percent of town and council posts; and just one governor. This is where the "gap" truly lies, and this is why it's somewhat premature to consider any American woman for Vice President in '84. When this grass roots "gap" finally starts to close (and it looks like it will close going from right to left), American politics will never be the same, and women will come into their own.