Beyond the gender gap

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe

November 25, 1991|By Sherry Bebitch Jeffe

WITH THE presidential primary season closing in, the White House is paranoid about a possible threat from the Republican right. See President Bush phone in encouragement to an anti-abortion-rights rally. Watch him veto legislation allowing abortion counseling at federally funded family-planning clinics. But while the White House gang is busy pandering to the right, they're ignoring another potential Republican trouble spot. If the mood of participants at the recent Forum for Women State Legislators, sponsored by the Center for the American Woman and Politics, is any indication, the women -- Republican, too -- are angry, and the boys just don't get it!

Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court confirmation battle redefined political relationships between men and women. Regardless of party, women at the forum were outraged at what they saw as the incompetent, insensitive behavior of male senators.

Democratic congresswomen fumed at the way their Senate colleagues slighted not only women's issues but also their presence at the doors of the Senate caucus room.

The anger and frustration among GOP women in San Diego went well beyond a feminist response to the Thomas hearings. Their ** loyalty to the GOP was strained.

At an afternoon workshop attended by more than 30 pro-choice Republican women, legislators lashed out at the president, GOP Chairman Clayton Yeutter, Chief of Staff John Sununu and the "inside the Beltway" male Republicans who don't "know what's going on out there. . . . They're just in another world."

The emotions were triggered by two issues increasingly dangerous for Bush and the Republicans: the soured economy and abortion rights.

The economy was an overriding concern. It is, after all -- Democrats and Republicans agreed -- the ultimate women's issue, because when recession comes, the group hit hardest is poor women.

Republican women were furious at the president's handling -- and mishandling -- of the recession. One exasperated legislator said: "If he (Bush) doesn't start addressing health care, domestic issues, he's going to lose it. . . . He can't ride Desert Storm for two years."

Emotions were no less intense on the subject of abortion rights. A Republican legislator warned: "The abortion issue symbolizes a respect for women. . . . It is broader than the choice issue." Activist women clearly felt the president doesn't understand that or isn't even listening.

Representatives of the National Republican Coalition for Choice talked of building a Republican Party reflecting support for "a woman's fundamental right to reproductive freedom." The coalition pledges to help pro-choice challengers running against pro-life incumbents in Republican Party primaries. That should make the White House nervous. Bush could well be embarrassed at his own convention by a nasty floor fight over abortion rights.

The late GOP Chairman Lee Atwater sensed moderates' discontent with the party platform's strict anti-abortion language. addressed that with his "big tent" philosophy: There's room in the Republican Party for differing ideological views. To pro-choice activists, that means modifying the party's anti-abortion plank. To anti-abortion-rights activists, it means war.

So pro-choice groups are mobilizing to elect delegates to the Republican National Convention in Houston next year and to seat representatives on the party's platform and policy committees. As one GOP legislator promised: "There's going to be a lot of noise down in Texas. We have to let him (Bush) know we're not going to sit idly by. We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it."

It is clear from the anger and frustration vented at the forum that the post-Thomas-Hill era has brought an awakening of women of both parties to the reality that women are different. That they cannot rely solely on men to represent women's interests. A Center for the American Woman and Politics study indicated that women legislators, regardless of party, have policy agendas different from and more liberal than their male counterparts. By raising issues male officeholders don't emphasize, Republican and Democratic "women legislators do make a difference. . . . They have a distinctive impact" on government.

Women also share a bipartisan rage at the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has come to symbolize incompetent, male government. "If this is the caliber of men," a long-time GOP activist exclaimed, "then, damn! Why did they keep us out so long?"

Never have women been so united in wanting a government and society that is truly reflective of them. At some point, when the rage and frustration build to critical mass, both Democratic and Republican activists argue, women won't care whether the candidate is a Republican or a Democrat; they will want women. No, we're not there yet. But the idea is not so far-fetched as it might have been -- before Roe vs. Wade was assaulted and the Thomas hearings placed sexual harassment and boorish behavior by national leaders high on the political agenda.

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