Women and the '88 Elections

By Sharron Hannon

Vol. 10, No. 1, 1988, pp. 1-3

What role will women play in the '88 elections? Will the "gender gap" resurface? Will it affect the outcome of the presidential race?

These are questions that candidates and political analysts might well be pondering in the next several wasks, as Super Tuesday--the March 8 date when primaries and caucuses will be held in twenty states, mostly in the South--looms large on the horizon.

To help focus their attention, the National Women's Political Caucus gathered representatives from the presidential campaigns, political consultants, pollsters and journalists for a day-long conference in Atlanta in December.

The purpose of the meeting, according to NWPC chair Irene Natividad, was to "underscore the obvious"--the fact that women make up a majority of voters in this country. In 1988, ten million more women than men will be eligible to vote.

Women's groups worry that these numbers are being either overlooked or deliberately ignored by the candidates.

"They act like they're afraid of the 'w' word--women," says Natividad. "The omission of women from campaign rhetoric so far has been the norm rather than the exception. Why don't they target the largest clump of voters? Why is something so obvious being so intensely ignored?"

The silence is particularly evident in Super Tuesday states, she notes, where candidates seem to be focusing instead on "Rhett Butler--the white male in the South."

This is not a winning strategy, according to participants at the Atlanta meeting. They contend that the key to Super Tuesday is to find a message that will resonate


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among women and minorities.

To bolster the point, presenters at the conference deluged the audience with statistics on voting patterns in the '80, '84 end '86 elections. For example:

  • In 1980, for the first time since women won the right to vote in 1920, the same percentage of women voted as men (59 percent). Because more women than men are eligible to vote (since women live longer and form a larger percentage of the population), this meant that six million more women than men voted.
  • Also in 1980, polling data revealed that women were thinking and voting differently from men on a wide range of issues including national security, the economy, the environment and education, as well as women's rights issues. The "gender gap" was born, and has continued to manifest itself during subsequent elections and polling on a variety of issue areas.
  • By 1984, leaders of seventy-six national women's organizations had banded together for a registration, education and get-out-the-vote drive. The Women's Vote Project aimed to register one and a half million new women voters from among the thirty million eligible but unregistered female population. The goal was exceeded, with more than 1.8 million women registered, and the post-election Census Bureau report confirmed a significant increase: 61 percent of all eligible women voted--a 2 percent increase from 1980 and 2 percent higher than men, whose level remained at 59 percent. Seven million more women than men voted.
  • In 1986, women's votes (in combination with votes by minorities in some cases) provided the winning edge in nine key Senate races--five of these in Southern states. The beneficiaries were all Democrats and include John Breaux (L Louisiana), Wyche Fowler (Georgia), Bob Graham (Florida), Terry Sanford (North Carolina) and Richard Shelby (Alabama). Women voted in greater numbers than men in all twenty Super Tuesday states.

While these statistics point to potential political clout for women, the operative word here is potential. Some political pundits are still inclined to write off the gender gap, pointing out that it failed to defeat Ronald Reagan in '84.

Activist women's groups acknowledge that the women's vote is not monolithic. Race, age, income and education level are among the factors other than sex that figure into voting patterns. Still, they bristle at being labeled a "special interest" group.

"We are here to remind the candidates that we are not a special interest; we are more than half the population," said Missouri Lt. Gov. Harriett Woods, echoing the sentiments of many at the NWPC gathering in Atlanta.

Woods attended the meeting both as an NWPC member and as a representative of Democratic presidential candidate Richard Gephardt (she is co-chair of the campaign for her fellow Missourian). All six Democratic candidates sent stand-ins, though only Bob Dole was represented on the Republican side. And each, in turn, was given an opportunity to make a pitch for her candidate.

In addition, the NWPC's Democratic and Republican task forces released reports on the candidates, covering not only where they stand on such issues as ERA, choice, child care and pay equity, but also data on how many women are on their campaign staffs and what their positions and I salaries are. "Equal opportunity cannot begin after the election," said Ann Lewis, chair of the Democratic task force and former executive director of Americans for Democratic Action.

Not surprisingly, the Democratic candidates all ranked considerably better than their Republican counterparts on support of the issues, with Jesse Jackson, Michael Dukakis and Paul Simon rated as the strongest backers of women's rights in the task force reports.

Perhaps surprisingly, women are well-represented on the campaign and office staffs of nearly all the candidates (information on Pat Robertson and Alexander Haig was not available for the reports). Women hold close to half of the positions overall and their salaries are competitive with men on the staffs.

The highest ranking woman is Susan Estrich, Dukakis's campaign manager. She is the first woman in history to run a major presidential campaign. Women in the Dukakis campaign hold twenty-seven of the top forty-nine paid positions.

"We're running the darn thing," Deputy Political Director Alice Travis, an active NWPC member, told her colleagues in Atlanta. "We're in charge at last and how sweet it is."

The Democratic task force report also notes endorsements from prominent women. Again Dukakis fares particularly well, with support from Gov. Madeleine Kunin of Vermont, Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy of Massachusetts, Secretary of State Elaine Baxter of Iowa, former New York City' councilperson Carol Bellamy, and more than one hundred


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female state legislators from twenty-two states.

While endorsements and the placement of women on their staffs may help candidates attract women to their campaigns, neither is necessarily enough in itself

"It'a great to have women in high positions, but what about the rest of us?" asked a Florida NWPC member who had recently attended her state Democratic convention. "I went to each candidate there and not one had a piece of literature with them that spoke to women's issues."

Harriett Woods, co-chair for Gephardt, defends the candidates from the charge that they are not speaking to women.

"In the debates so far, no one has asked the right questions," she says. "The dialogue has been controlled by the interviewers."

Still, she acknowledges a need to get the candidates to put forth such issues as child care--which polls show to be an overwhelming concern among women.

The candidates will receive more than a little nudge in this direction in January. First, U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder will launch a "Great American Family Tour" on the 1 7th with funds raised during her exploratory campaign for president. Along with pediatrician-author T. Berry Brazelton and "Family Ties" producer Gary David Goldberg, she will travel to Portsmouth, N.H., four Southern cities, and Iowa to talk about the parental leave bill which she is currently sponsoring in Congress.

Schroeder's aim is to get this and other "family issues" into the forefront of political debate.

"Everything we used to call women's issues are really family issues," she notes. "If you're shortchanging women, you're shortchanging everybody."

Next, from Jan. 22-24, more than thirty women's organizations will sponsor a "Women's Agenda Conference" in Des Moines, two weeks before the Iowa caucuses. The presidential candidates have been invited to speak on child care, pay equity and other issues. The conference was initiated by the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs (BPW), a group that has rarely been involved in national politics.

Executive director Linda C. Dorian describes BPW as "a sleeping elephant that's getting roused up"--an interesting metaphor since 54 percent of the group's members identify themselves as Republicans.

Another road show--the "Feminization of Power Campaign" run by Eleanor Smeal, former president of the National Organization for Women--will continue on its nationwide tour with stops in Georgia and Florida planned for early '88. Launched last October, the tour has already traveled to Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Raleigh, drumming up feminist candidates to run for office at all levels.

A special feature of the tour's rallies is a request for each person in attendance to take a pledge "not to work for, nor support with my vote, money or time, any candidate who does not support and work for women's rights and feminist principles."

To help evaluate candidates, the Fund for the Feminist Majority, which is sponsoring the Feminization of Power tour, has created a pamphlet outlining "The National Feminist Agenda." The agenda is an updated and condensed form of the "Plan of Action" drawn up at the 1977 National Women's Conference held in Houston.

At the NWPC meeting in Atlanta there was also talk of putting together a women's agenda to submit to the Democratic National Committee in response to Chairman Paul Kirk's proposal for a shortened party platform for '88.

Women at the meeting viewed the proposal as yet another attempt to sidestep issues.

"It's the same thing he has been doing all along, which is to dance away from what he considers the special interest issues that have hurt the Democratic Party," said Irene Natividad. "It's unfortunate because I think this election is the Democrats' to win or lose."

Various polls show that the Democratic Party holds a slight edge among women. According to a "Southern Primary Poll" conducted for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 56 percent of those intending to vote in the Democratic primary are women.

But polls also show that women, in greater numbers than men, are still window-shopping when it comes to the presidential race.

"If the candidates' melanges are on the mark," asks Natividad, "why are most women voters voting for a candidate called 'undecided'?"

Sharron Hannon is a Georgia-based freelance writer, whose work has appeared in numerous publications. For the past four years, she has edited Southern Feminist, a newspaper covering women's rights issues.