Dressing up affirmative action for women


HOW DO you phrase the importance of affirmative action for a young woman, for somebody who comes in the room and half the chairs are already filled with women?" That plaintive lament from Washington lawyer Barbara Timmer -- who's spent the last 20 years struggling to the top -- is a question that's not just being asked by older women stung by the ingratitude of the women who've followed them, but also by politicians trying to build support for affirmative action.

Since the majority of voters are female, advocates of affirmative action have been trying to put the issue in a dress -- to remind women that these programs affect them. Celinda Lake, a pollster who advises Democratic candidates, argues: "Women more than men tend to think that often the workplace is arbitrary and that it's very easy for someone qualified not to have equal opportunity, particularly in terms of pay, particularly in terms of promotions. So I think articulated the right way, women will come on board."

She's going to have an awful lot of articulating to do. In a recent Wall Street Journal poll only 11 percent of working women said they thought they had personally benefited from affirmative action. Listen to Laura Ingraham, a 31-year-old Washington lawyer: "I don't think I needed a preference." She believes the whole idea of preferences patronizes women who are succeeding today by allowing people to ask, "are you here because you're smart and you're talented or are you here because of a preference program?"

Just say the word "preference" and you turn off most voters. That's one of the difficulties in measuring public support for affirmative action -- even more than for most issues, the answer depends on how the question is worded. When an ABC News poll asked questions about whether blacks and women should "receive preference in things like hiring, promotions and college admissions to make up for past discrimination," three-quarters of the respondents said no. But in a Gallup Poll that asked "Do you generally favor or oppose affirmative action programs for women and minorities?" 55 percent said yes. And two-thirds of the women recently surveyed by the New York Times said they think it's still necessary to have laws protecting them in hiring and promotion.

That means, according to Republican pollster Linda DiVall, candidates who oppose affirmative action must be careful just how they do it. First, she says, they must make it clear that they are not going to tolerate discrimination: "If candidates don't start from that premise, then often women in particular hear someone who is not particularly sensitive to the problems they have had advancing in the job workplace."

But Ms. DiVall makes it clear that when it comes to the cold, hard political calculation about affirmative action, Republicans are nowhere near as interested in women as they are in white men, especially non-college-educated men aged 30 to 64: "They feel threatened by college-educated men, younger women coming up in the marketplace, or coming out of school and into the marketplace. Those are the people who really feel threatened by affirmative action programs and by what's happening in society today." And, she adds, they make up a large percentage of the people who show up to vote in Republican primaries.

And what about the people who vote in Democratic primaries? "College-educated white women tend to be supportive of affirmative action," Democratic pollster Celinda Lake asserts, "non-college educated women tend to have many more reservations about it. And, also to be worried about the job of the man in their family as well as their own job."

It all adds up to a very tough road ahead for affirmative action. And that leaves some older women shaking their heads, worrying that once the pressure is off, the men who still hold most of the power will go back to doing the easy thing, to hiring and promoting people just like them. Some young women, like Laura Ingraham, think that's ridiculous, "Women are doing incredibly well in their own businesses across the country, so it doesn't make any sense for a company that wants to compete globally or nationally not to have women."

Barbara Timmer hears the voices of the young and wistfully muses: "Maybe that was our goal. Maybe our goal was to have it seem so effortless." But she still feels the aches of the effort that went into getting women to the point they have reached in American society today. And she -- and we -- know there's a good deal more effort ahead if women are ever to achieve equal power. Now, it seems likely, for better or for worse, that effort will go forward without the help of the politicians.

Cokie Roberts is a commentator for ABC News. Steven V. Roberts is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report.

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