Women vs. Reagan
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.
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