NEW YORK -- There is an old husband-wife joke that goes something like this: ''He worries about the big things like war and peace. I just handle the little things like whether we can pay the rent or the kids can go to college.''
The joke turns out to be true, according to some interesting polling and focus groups co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters and Ladies' Home Journal. Women, it seems, are more interested in economic issues than men, because they are indeed the ones who balance the checkbooks of America. It is men who are more likely to be influenced by so-called ''soft'' or social issues or ''values'' -- the blah-blah-blah of politics.
The polling, which will be published next month in Ladies' Home Journal, is nonpartisan or bipartisan, in the sense that it was the work of Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster, and Celinda Lake, a Democrat. It is also pretty depressing stuff if you are a man who believes in the ''value'' of political participation.
Women are ''time-squeezed,'' a phrase used by Ms. DiVall. They just have too much to do and too much to worry about. After crunching some numbers in a press conference to discuss the survey, she began talking about her sister in Chicago managing a family with three children:
She's in the van
''Do you think you can get to her through Jim Lehrer or the Chicago Tribune? Not hardly. She's in the van taking one of the kids somewhere.''
Said Ms. Lake: ''We're talking about women who work at J.C. Penney, who have to start getting ready at 4 a.m. to take their kids to paid day care. . . . To them, the personal is political. They think the country is in bad shape because their families are in bad shape.''
They just have too much to do -- and not even half of them are going to vote if the numbers discussed by Ms. DiVall and Ms. Lake hold up. Only 60 percent of women polled nationwide were registered to vote; of the registered voters, only 77 percent said they expected to vote, a drop from 92 percent of the registered who voted in 1992.
Those women have not given up. Not quite. Some just don't care about politics and promises anymore. Some are mad as hell. But as rough as their lives have become, the women family managers were not as cynical as men. They do not watch the nightly news -- they don't have the time -- but on weekends they are working as volunteers in church work or in kids' activities -- and not only with their own kids.
Politically, they also seem to be different from men in at least one overriding specific. The pollsters said that both men and women think government is no help to their families -- but women believed it could be. As rough as things are for them every day, most of the women seemed to believe that it did not have to be that way; something could be done.
In specific numbers, asked to choose from a list of adjectives describing feelings about politics, 17 percent chose ''frustrated,'' 16 percent chose ''disgusted,'' and 14 percent chose ''disillusioned.'' Only 26 percent chose positive words.
American women are scared, and after looking at some of these numbers and the pollsters' take on focus groups, so was I. It sounded to me like millions of lives of quiet desperation. The survey defined four groups of women, the oldest of which they called ''Edith Bunkers.'' Ms. Lake said: ''Retirement could be the issue of the decade. Edith is worried that she and Archie don't have enough in savings and pensions and Social Security to make it. That's bad enough, but she's also worried that Archie will be laid off or fired, or that he will run off with someone at work.''
The ''Bunkers'' think they are getting it from both ends. They don't like welfare or people getting it, but they also don't like wealthier people getting wealthier.
''Violence'' or crime is also an issue with great numbers of women, but it was presented as part of an overall threat to family security -- and the worst of those dangers is economic. There is also a ''less is more'' attitude among women. Big claims and promises, said Ms. DiVall, just make women laugh and say, ''Are you kidding?''
Both pollsters, who do most of their work for their parties and its candidates, offered a final discouraging fact. Politicians can't find these women. They don't go to meetings, and they don't follow much news -- again, they don't have the time.
''The only place they have time to talk,'' said Ms. Lake, ''is in the coffee-break room at work and in the supermarket.''
They are wherever they have to be to make ends meet -- in both time and money. If the League of Women Voters and women's magazines can reach them, more power to them. You don't have to be one to know that women, these women, are what hold the country together. If they ''lose it'' -- and they are -- we all lose big time.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 4/16/96