Women are more conservative than they think they are

September 23, 1996|By Mona Charen

WASHINGTON -- ''We never should have given women the vote,'' grumbled a well-known conservative at a recent gathering. The pundit was joking -- but the persistent gender gap in polling has led many conservatives to despair about what they perceive as soft-headedness on the part of American women.

This is the political year in which both parties did everything except don lipstick and pantyhose to appeal to the female voter. The major parties' political conventions were pitched to female viewers the way ''Disease of the Week'' TV movies are marketed.

But perhaps both parties are mistaken about women.

Women may be, on average, more liberal than men, but they are a lot more conservative than nearly all Democrats. According to a Richard Wirthlin poll commissioned by Concerned Women for America, 40 percent of women called themselves Democrats, 29 percent Republicans, and 25 percent said they were independents. Yet 53 percent said they were conservative, compared with 31 percent who called themselves liberal and 10 percent moderate.

How about women's feelings on abortion? It's a case of everybody knowing something that ain't so: Everybody knows that women are liberal on abortion, which is the biggest reason for the gender gap.

Most are pro-life

But the Wirthlin survey found that 55 percent of women consider themselves pro-life (25 percent would outlaw all abortions; 30 percent would permit abortion only in hard cases like rape, incest or to save the life of the mother), and only 43 percent are pro-choice. Moreover, among the latter group, 30 percent would limit the availability of abortion to the first three months of pregnancy -- a position at odds with the ''anything goes'' philosophy of President Clinton and the Democratic Party.

Asked to name the single most important issue facing the country today, crime topped the list (25 percent), followed by concern over declining moral values (8 percent). No issue garnered huge percentages, and abortion languished at the bottom with only 1 percent.

Women are liberal on other social issues, aren't they? Not according to the Wirthlin survey. A large majority, 68 percent, favors welfare reform that includes a family cap (no increased funding for additional children born while the mother is on welfare), and 72 percent favor a requirement that welfare mothers identify the fathers of their babies before becoming eligible for benefits. Ninety-two percent of women believe able-bodied welfare recipients should be required to work, and 69 percent favor limiting benefits to two years.

When asked, ''Do you consider yourself a feminist?'' 60 percent said no, 26 percent yes. The rest weren't sure. Asked whether government leaders should ''support traditional family values'' or ''promote tolerance for alternative lifestyles and family structures,'' 66 percent chose ''family values,'' 23 percent said ''tolerance.''

A demographic balance

Respondents to this survey were from every major ethnic group, age, income category and marital status. Seventy-three percent were Caucasian, 11 percent black, 10 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian, 1 percent American Indian. Sixty percent were married, 10 percent divorced, and 17 percent single. Sixty-one percent worked outside the home.

Now for the bad news: Bill Clinton outpolls Bob Dole in most of the categories that are important to women. He is credited with doing more to promote adoption, reform welfare, make health care affordable and protect women from violence than his opponent.

Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a Republican pollster, says women are conservative in both ideology and temperament. Bill Clinton is appealing to both. He takes credit for Republican ideas like the adoption tax credit and welfare reform, and he also appeals to their ''don't rock the boat'' impulses. ''Republicans have the ideology; Democrats have the phraseology,'' she says.

OK, full disclosure. The conservative pundit who lamented giving women the vote was me. I've been frustrated by their credulousness regarding the president and willingness to believe that something with a nice name -- like the Violence Against Women Act -- is necessarily a nice law.

The Wirthlin poll and the Fitzpatrick insight add up to only one prescription: educate, educate, educate. The more women know about ideas and legislation, the more conservative they become.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/23/96

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