Women at peak of electoral power in 2000

Leaders at Feminist Expo know their constituency does not vote in lock step

April 02, 2000|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Jacqui Ceballos was born just five years after women won the right to vote in America. She remembers clearly the long stretch that followed when politicians simply weren't very interested in how women voted.

"Oh, they weren't interested at all," said Ceballos, 74, who helped lead the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women during the turbulent 1970s, when all of that started to change. "When we got some power," she said, "of course they wanted us then."

Perhaps never as much as they do this year.

With the presidential race expected to be a squeaker straight through the fall, pollsters say it could well be women -- who have turned out in greater numbers than men in recent elections -- who decide the outcome.

"There's no political analyst that will not say the gender gap will be important in this election," said Eleanor Smeal, a leading feminist thinker who coined the term 20 years ago.

At the Feminist Expo 2000 in Baltimore, which concludes today, Smeal and other left-leaning women's rights leaders are doing their best to influence how candidates think about and talk about women's issues in the presidential race.

But the collective women's vote includes many subdivisions. There are the "soccer moms" who gained fame in 1996, and their working-class counterparts for 2000: "waitress moms." Already, there are signs that older and younger women will split their vote this year, said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center in Washington.

And while women voters traditionally lean Democratic, Kohut said, that might not hold true in a topsy-turvy election year that has seen some liberal Democratic women fall hard for conservative Republican Sen. John McCain or sniff their disapproval of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as a U.S. Senate candidate.

"I can't believe it; they're saying they won't vote for her because she didn't leave him," said Ceballos, one of 6,000 participants expected at the conference at the Baltimore Convention Center.

Ceballos, who as a college music student in Louisiana during the 1940s fiercely defended Eleanor Roosevelt, is the kind of stalwart Democratic woman voter who helped Bill Clinton twice win the White House.

In 1992, Clinton took 46 percent of the women's vote, compared with 37 percent that went to Republican George Bush and 17 percent to Reform Party candidate Ross Perot. In 1996, Clinton won 54 percent of the women's vote to Republican Bob Dole's 38 percent and Perot's 7 percent, Pew Center research shows.

Clinton's advantage with women was significant in part because more women than men went to the polls, said Mary Hawkesworth, director of the nonpartisan Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. In 1996, 53 percent of the voters were women.

"Bill Clinton's election is completely owed to the women's vote," Hawkesworth said. "So both the Democratic and Republican parties are keenly aware of the need to court them."

So far, Clinton's appeal to women voters is not certain to transfer to his vice president.

When Republican George W. Bush was enjoying double-digit leads over Democrat Al Gore late last year, it was largely because he also had a slight edge with women voters, said the Pew Center's Kohut. In research last month, Kohut's organization showed Gore with a 13-point lead among women.

"What lead [Gore] has is predicated upon his support among women, which has been up and down in the past year," Kohut said.

Republican pollster Linda DiVall points out that Bush is far more popular among women voters -- particularly stay-at-home moms -- than either his father or Bob Dole was. She credits the younger Bush's attention to issues such as education, his youth and his campaign theme of "compassionate conservatism."

In his stump speech, Bush almost always gives a nod to single mothers, saying they have the "toughest job in America."

Bush won 49 percent of the women's vote in his first race for governor in Texas, against Democratic incumbent Ann W. Richards. He won more than 60 percent of the women's vote in his re-election in 1998.

Women won the right to vote in 1920. It wasn't until the early 1980s that the gender gap first appeared. Kohut said the gap traces to more women entering the work force and paying attention to issues such as reproductive rights and the minimum wage. Before that, Kohut said, men and women generally voted the same.

Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said issues such as gun control and education will help define the women's vote this year. Already, they are showing their muscle: A Million Mom March is planned in Washington on May 14 to push for stricter gun laws.

And Smeal said it won't be enough for candidates to highlight education, an issue women voters traditionally rank as a top concern. She wants to hear candidates talk specifically about protecting Title IX, the federal law that gives girls and boys equal access to sports and other school activities.

Women voters should be asking other questions as well, Smeal said. How many women would the candidates appoint to the Cabinet? How would they protect elderly women who might be hurt by an overhaul Social Security?

The candidates this year will have to pay attention, she said. "You cannot ignore the women's vote and get elected."

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