Women Don't Want Lip Service, They Want Action

The real gender gap is between women's often-stated concerns about pay equity, health, education and gun control-and candidates' hollow rhetoric. Women's number one issue is economic parity. From the Presidential candidates: silence.

Roselyn O'Connell, president of the NWPC

Women register to vote, actually cast their votes and work in political campaigns far more often and in greater numbers than men. So why aren't there more women in office? And why don't the current Presidential candidates address women's true concerns, often and publicly stated?

Just three weeks before the Nov. 7 election, leading experts on women's political activities said their views are still not understood by those running national campaigns.

“The good news: Women are actively involved and engaged,” said Mary Hawkesworth, director of the Center for American Women in Politics. “Issues that women have championed for 150 years are front and center: health care, education, child care-and, more recently, gun control.” This has led to accusations by some pundits that the current Presidential campaign has been “feminized,” she added.

However, “Both candidates are acting as if all they need to do is mention the category,” said Hawkesworth. “They don't really need to understand it, or come up with solutions.”

Roselyn O'Connell, president of the National Women's Political Caucus, agreed, citing an armload of statistics: Seven million more women (than men) are registered to vote; 67 percent of women are registered to vote, as opposed to 50 percent of men; women make up 75 percent of Democratic Party activists and 65 percent of Republican Party activists.

O'Connell pointed out that when women are polled about the candidates, pollsters tend to ask questions like which candidate would be more fun on a date?

“American women know the difference between dating and voting. It's the difference between a boring Saturday evening versus the quality of health care and education and Social Security. Why don't they ask us what we think about those?”

The two spoke at an October 12 gathering billed as “What Women Really Want: Campaign 2000 and the Women's Vote” and sponsored by the Century Foundation in New York.

What Women Really Want: A Government That Takes Action

The reason for the universal lip service? The historic “gender gap,” noted in 1992 and especially in 1996, when Bill Clinton would not have won were it not for the votes of women, especially black women.

This year, Vice President Al Gore desperately needs those women's votes-and the pull they tend to exert on the male electorate.

“Historically, in recent elections,” said Ethel Klein of EDK Associates, “by September the gender gap is set and growing-and tends to pull male voters along with it.”

As of this week's CNN poll, however, that magic formula doesn't appear to be working for Gore.

In September, an ABC News/Washington Post poll showed 52 percent of women favoring Gore and 38 percent favoring Texas Gov. George W. Bush, with the rest undecided. Among men, 52 percent favored Bush and only 38 percent Gore. The gender gap was thus 14 percentage points. This gap persisted on a range of issues: On the economy, 53 percent of women supported Gore, versus 42 percent of men; on helping the middle class, 58 percent of women versus 45 percent of men; on education, 57 percent of women versus 47 percent of men.

This year, however, “we have a record number of undecided voters-and they're very volatile,” she said. This past week, after the second Gore-Bush debate, the gender gap actually decreased, as more of the undecided women went over to the Bush camp.

Overall, 52 percent of women still supported the Vice President, but now 43 percent favored Bush, while men's support for Bush shot up to 54 percent.

“It's all nibbling at the margins, but it's significant,” said Klein, who helped coin the term “gender gap” with her book, “Gender Politics,” in 1984.

The reason? According to Klein, it's because Gore “stopped being a Democrat.”

Gore's Problem: He Stopped Talking About Democrats' Issues

In the same Washington Post/ABC News poll, far more women than men agreed with the statement: “The government in Washington should do everything possible to improve the lives of Americans.”

“The gender gap is about one thing: wanting a government that does something,” said Klein, whose firm analyzes poll results and conducts focus groups on crucial issues. “The candidates all talk about smaller government, but for women it's most important that government do something-hold down oil prices, say, or ensure access to health care. When Gore stopped talking about what government can do for you-that's when he started losing support from women.”

The swing voters who everyone is trying to attract, she added, are overwhelmingly working class.

“If the Presidential candidates want to attract working-class women,” Klein said. “I suggest they start talking about domestic violence. Or child care, which is becoming a big-ticket item women often can't afford.”

Candidates Silent on Women's Number One Issue: Pay Equity

A recent Center for Policy Alternatives survey reported that women named pay equity as their number one issue. White women make 74 cents for every dollar earned by men; African-American women, 64 cents and Latinas, 54 cents. (See: Working Women Still Running Hard to Stay in Place, Women's Enews, September 4, 2000.)

“Women who are working full-time outside of the home are, in general, making the minimum wage,” said Hawkesworth. “When a woman who has two or more children is only bringing home minimum wage, she's not going to be able to make it.”

O'Connell added: “If women had pay equity, poverty rates would drop by 50 percent.” Yet pay equity, she said, is never mentioned in this Presidential race.

Nearly as crucial as pay equity-and perhaps essential to it-is equity of political representation, the panelists said.

“If women are 50 percent of the population, and represent over half of the voters,” asked O'Connell, “shouldn't we be 50 percent of the elected representatives?”

Unfortunately, “our best-case scenario,” according to Hawkesworth, “gets us 14 percent of the U.S. Congress and 18 percent of women governors.”

That best-case scenario would mean victory for all the women incumbents, 52 House members and three senators, who are running for re-election; re-election for New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen and victory for all three new women candidates for governor. It would assume seven women running for open House seats win.

“If we end up with 12 women senators, the press will go all over itself, calling it historic. And it is, but we need to do better,” Hawkesworth said.

“If More Women Ran For Office . . . “

This year, a record 120 women won their primaries for House seats.

“More women would win,” said O'Connell, “if more women ran for office!”

They don't, these experts said, because of family responsibilities, fund-raising challenges and opposition from party establishments.

“The party will let women challenge incumbents,” said Hawkesworth, “but when a seat comes open, they'll want what they think of as a real candidate-a man. It's crucial that women who are in office now mentor the next generation.”

In addition, women's representation in state legislatures, a traditional pipeline to Congressional and state elective executive office, remains at 22 percent, and is even decreasing in some states.

“It's very troubling,” said O'Connell. “It's so important that women be encouraged and supported in running for these offices-or else the gains we have made in Congress are in danger.”

Looking beyond this election, panelists saw positive change and impetus for change as coming from abroad-from the global economy, and from an international women's movement.

“Women in the United States want our humanity, our equal citizenship recognized,” said Hawkesworth. “The challenge is how to put that on the political agenda.”

She pointed to the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, which set an explicit goal of 30 percent representation in executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. “France, Belgium, India-they've all put in place specific and drastic measures to make that happen. In the United States, this shining example of democracy, we're nowhere close.”

Chris Lombardi is a New York-based free-lance writer who writes often for Women's Enews.