Women vs. Reagan

They are becoming the anti-establishment force in politics, and they have the votes to make big changes

U.S. President Ronald Reagan visits WHO radio in Des Moines, Iowa in 1982. Credit: David Hume Kennerly/Getty

After all these years, Sigmund Freud's exasperated question about women is at last receiving tangible answers in the surveys of American public opinion, answers that are profoundly disconcerting to white male politicians.

What do women want? They do not want penises of their own, as Freud theorized. What women want – the overwhelming majority of them, according to the polls –– is straightforward and sensible. A new political agenda that turns away from the mindless masculine reflexes of the Cold War and pursues more egalitarian, life-preserving objectives.

Women want the madness of the nuclear arms race stopped. Women want the natural environment protected against man-made depredation. They want better living conditions for children and for the poor. They want handguns forbidden and social security increased. They oppose the draft and they oppose military adventures in foreign lands. They do not believe the 'free enterprise' conservatism of the Reagan government will benefit them. Women want an activist government that works to reduce the income gap between rich and poor.

Each of these opinions, summarized from an array of standard opinion surveys, is especially significant because, in each case, the opinions expressed by women are dramatically different from those of men. In some instances, women express much stronger positions than men; in others, the majority of women are directly opposed to the majority of men. Some cynical male politicians respond: So what? Haven't women always been for peace and babies and all that?

Yes, but this season there is a crucial difference, a hard political edge that threatens the status quo. Attitudes and opinions that women have probably always held are not only being expressed more strongly these days, they are also being translated directly into political choices. Women, on the whole, don't trust Ronald Reagan or especially like him, while the majority of men still do. Women are fearful of his cowboy approach to foreign affairs, and they particularly resent his retrograde economic policies at home. Consequently, they do not support the Republican party, which follows him so obediently. And they intend to vote that way in the November congressional elections.

At the risk of sounding breathlessly optimistic, I think we are about to see the most significant and promising political change of the Eighties, one that could produce a radical reordering of American politics. Collectively, given all their discontents and desires, women are becoming the new anti-establishment force in politics. And they have a natural advantage that outsiders assaulting the established order normally lack: Women are the voting majority.

The best evidence that something deep is happening comes from the attitudes of working women, particularly younger ones. Working women, now the majority of all women, express the views most divergent from men. As more and more women enter the job market in this decade, they will have a bread-and-butter stake in political decisions and a direct basis for their own independent opinions. When one survey in 1981 asked citizens for their party identification, men chose the Democratic party over the Republican by 10 percentage points. Women chose the Democratic party by a margin of 21 percent. Working women, however, favored the Democrats by 29 percent.

As pollster Patrick Caddell suggested, we may someday soon be calling it "the Democratic Women's party." When media consultant Robert Squier was asked how he would advise male candidates to appeal to women voters, Squier replied: "I would recommend a sex-change operation." In other words, a lot of male Democrats are going to find themselves replaced in the next few years by Democratic women.

More cautious analysts, I should add, are skeptical. They concede that the public-opinion surveys now reveal this puzzling schism between men and women –– trivialized in political chatter as the "gender gap" –– but they are not convinced that women will actually vote their preferences as strongly as the polls suggest. The failure to win ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which expired last month, lends support to these skeptics. Events will intervene to moderate the differences, they predict, or the autumn blitz of Republican TV ads will soften women's opposition, or the economy will improve.

Maybe so. But over the long run, the logic of history is on my side of the argument. For 15 years, the modern feminist movement has been struggling to change the psychological landscape that women confront, defeating the old stereotypes and traditional male-female divisions of labor, encouraging independent action. As these great cultural changes permeate every social arena from the family to the factory, it seems inevitable they will find expression in political behavior, too. Furthermore, independent expressions from women are not really a startling new development of 1982 but a trend that has been building gradually for years.

Political scientists Sandra Baxter and Marjorie Lansing documented in their 1980 book, Women and Politics, the Invisible Majority (University of Michigan Press), that the majority of women voted for Eisenhower in 1952 when Ike promised to end the Korean War and against the bellicose populism of George Wallace in 1968 and for the peace candidacy of George McGovern in 1972. Women expressed their overwhelming opposition to the war in Indochina much earlier than men. "A pattern stands clear over 25 years," Baxter and Lansing wrote. "Women have been more opposed to the use of force and to the support of warlike policies."

The notion that women follow men in their voting habits has been mistaken for a long time. This year, some public-opinion analysts see evidence of a new trend: Men seem to be moving gradually toward the opinions of women on such issues as nuclear arms control and the Reagan economic program. If that trend persists, we will have to invent some new stereotypes to explain sex and politics.

What do men want? The old stereotype, which conveniently kept women from positions of power, held that women were too emotional, too flighty in their opinions, too susceptible to glitter and personality. Men, on the other hand, were said to be hardheaded and rational, steady and stable in their political attitudes. Judging from recent trends, however, the psychological question should be asked of men.

Why did most men fall in love with the Gipper? Why did they rally around his bloated defense budget and forgive the consequences of his economic policy? The explanation is as much emotional –– even sexual –– as rational. That offends the conventional notion of political issues, but men are likewise subject to hidden sexual appeals. Look at the blatantly phallic advertising from the military-industrial complex. The glossy ads from the defense manufacturers nearly always feature a phallus of destruction.

Little boys like to play with guns and so do grown-up men. In psychological terms, the appealing connection between rockets and men's own bodies is obvious. Joseph Herzberg, a Washington psychiatrist who studies the psychology of politics, explained the Pentagon's importance to men: "Men are very anxious about their bodies and the integrity of their bodies, their body strength. Men do suffer castration anxieties. That translates into the desire for a strong defense."

Barbara Ehrenreich, feminist author and a contributing editor of Ms. magazine, traces the current male anxieties to the lost war in Vietnam. She explained: "Here we were, supposed to be tough because there were communists out there. So we went out to fight, and look what happened –– we were humiliated."

Ehrenreich, working on a book that examines anti-feminist political forces, concludes that masculine fears are at the core of the New Right's appeal. "Part of the energy from the New Right," she said, "was what they saw as the decline of masculinity and the softness of America. When men of the right stand up and say it's time to face up to the communists, they think of themselves as 'real men.'"

Ronald Reagan looks like a 'real man.' He stands up to the commies. He loves rockets. He even dresses up like a cowboy. In every dimension, his political personality embodies the nostalgic idea of masculinity –– with an important additional virtue. He looks happy. In an era when men are struggling with their own definition of masculinity, Ronald Reagan seems totally content with his. He's a real man who makes no apologies for it.

The president, as psychiatrist Herzberg explained, "is the Western macho man with a smile on his face, a man who is on top and knows how to enjoy it. He doesn't have the uprightness that a lot of men have these days. He doesn't seem threatened by women."

His woman –– Nancy –– isn't threatening. She wants only to serve him, at least in their public performances. Everywhere they appear, she stands by his side, beaming up at him with pride, hanging on his every word. For many men, Nancy behaves just the way they wish their wives would behave (only their wives don't). "Reagan gives men a feeling that he has control," Herzberg said. "He's got that doll-like wife who looks sweet and never says anything. It's perfect."

One of the most revealing questions from the public-opinion surveys was one asking men and women whether the Reagan lifestyle in the White House seems extravagant to them. Only 39 percent of the men thought so, but a majority of the women –– 52 percent –– disapproved. This reverses the old stereotype that women care more about glamorous clothes and parties, but it is consistent with how most men regard the president. Success is money; money buys the glamorous life.

The marketing of Ronald Reagan as a real man has one crucial flaw, of course. The same qualities that turn on men –– the rockets and cowboy hat and doll-like wife, the hardhearted economic policy and the confrontational cold-war rhetoric –– tend to offend women. The liberated woman who is working, perhaps supporting a family, is not likely to be enchanted by Nancy's new china. Or charmed by Ronnie's opposition to the ERA.

A majority of women, for instance, fear that Reagan will get us into war. Most men do not. Men are more relaxed about Reagan's trashing of the environmental laws. Women are much more upset. On the issues of health and safety and social order, from crime control to the hazards of nuclear power, women express stronger concern than men. They abhor violence. They believe that the natural world, including human life, should be preserved, not attacked.

The psychological explanation of this difference probably starts at the mother's breast. The infant both loves and hates its mother, both depends upon her nurture and also resents her all-powerful control over it. As Dorothy Dinnerstein explained in The Mermaid and the Minotaur (Harper & Row, 1976), the mother "is a source, like nature, of ultimate distress as well as ultimate joy. Like nature, she is both nourishing and disappointing, both alluring and threatening, both comforting and unreliable." To crudely oversimplify Dinnerstein's compelling explanation, boy babies develop from this early experience an enduring need to struggle against nature –– both to love mamma and to dominate her – which plays out in a lifetime of masculine struggles, both personal and political. Girl babies form their own complicated reactions to the nurturing experience, but inevitably, since they become women and mothers, too, they do not feel at war with all-powerful mother nature. They embody it. Dinnerstein proposes that these basic human differences are, in fact, surmountable, but only "when men start participating as deeply as women in the initiation of infants into the human estate, when both male and female parents come to carry for all of us the special meanings of early childhood."

In the meantime, aside from deep psychological urges, women have practical, rational reasons for turning against the Republicans while men still identify emotionally with the Gipper. In basic economic terms, the Reagan program is tilted toward the top of the income ladder, and women, in general, are still at the bottom. Two-thirds of the adults officially designated as poor are women. Even well-educated and middle-class women see themselves as victimized by wage discrimination.

Women want change. According to the polls, women are much more likely to believe that America is in deep and serious trouble. Most men have confidence that the nation will grow strong and prosperous in the next few years. Most women do not. This suggests that women will be more open to activist solutions, new policies from Washington that promise to make a real difference.

The Republican party ought to be deeply alarmed by all this (and many Republicans are). Reagan made short-term capital in 1980 by opposing the ERA and exploiting anti-feminist fears, especially among women who also long for a return of the traditional male-female social contract. In the long run, however, the Republicans have chosen the losing side of this social trend. The ERA will be reintroduced and eventually ratified in this decade, and the GOP will be forced to disengage from macho nostalgia.

The pro-ERA forces will triumph, I believe, because they are now talking in the only language that legislators understand –– money and votes. Over the last decade, feminists concentrated on rallying mass support for the ERA, and they succeeded. A majority of men and women do support it. But the new-right women, mobilized by deep fears of losing their place as honored wives and mothers, were out-organizing feminists at the local level. When Phyllis Schlafly's faithful swooped down on state legislators, they carried with them the believable threat of electoral revenge. All the feminists had to counter with was a smile from Alan Alda. But now the feminists are getting their political money together and mobilizing a counterattack on the same level. The National Women's Political Caucus has a hit list of legislators it wants to take out; so do the National Organization for Women and other groups. As these pro-ERA forces target reactionaries and defeat them, the climate for equal rights will improve miraculously in the next few years.

There is one sense in which women voters are very conservative. The trend lines of both opinion polls and voting returns in recent years demonstrate that women are wary of extremes, less likely to jump for a new face, more cautious in judging challengers. This helped Gerald Ford as the incumbent president in 1976, and it helped Jimmy Carter in 1980. Women stayed loyal to them longer than men. Indeed, it is the men who have lurched around more in their political choices, surging enthusiastically toward the new pied piper with new rhetoric.

Reagan, therefore, faces a special problem as an incumbent. He has already lost most of the women. If the men finally wake up to the illusory strength of Reagan's cowboy image, if men finally recognize that he is not controlling either the economy or foreign affairs, the president will not have women to fall back on. Maybe the future belongs not to reckless cowboys but to politicians who really did love their mothers.