CHICAGO -- The Democratic National Convention opened Monday on just the right note, or at least the right date: August 26, the 76th anniversary of women's suffrage. If 1992 was the Year of the Woman Candidate, 1996 is being touted as the Year of the Woman Voter.

In San Diego, the Republicans strutted their women out to the middle of the gender gap. As Ann Lewis, deputy campaign manager for President Clinton, told a spirited women's caucus here, the Republicans "went through a major cosmetic makeover. Everything but liposuction." They put all "the moderate women they could find on stage and in that party all the moderate women can fit on stage."

Here, more than half the delegates are women. The stars of the 1992 Democratic female firmament -- from Barbara Boxer to Patty Murray -- are back bearing a new title: senator. The pollsters repeatedly point out that women voters are overwhelmingly Clinton voters. But the Democrats are not taking women for granted.

In a city so political that the major highways are named Eisenhower, Stevenson and JFK, the Democrats are exorcising the specter of 1968. But the real nightmare, especially for the women's-vote watchers, was 1994. It's 1994 that makes the Democrats less than sanguine about their sex -- or should I say, gender -- appeal.

The Year of the Angry White Man was also the Year of the Turned-Off Woman. A full 59 percent of the Americans who voted in 1992 but stayed home in 1994 were women. That was the Gingrich margin of victory.

The gender gap fell victim to the enthusiasm gap. Ellen Malcolm, the head of the famed EMILY's List, described the "drop-off voters" this way: "These are the wives of the angry white men, who got turned off of politics and just said 'the heck with it.' "

Progressive women

fTC Conservatives not only took over Congress, but stalled the momentum of progressive women into political office. It's no wonder that many women who raised money for women's candidates are now involved in projects to bring out women voters. Especially voters who may be disconnected to "politics as usual."

Hillary Clinton, speaking Monday before a rally of women that she described as a "mix of a religious revival and an aerobics class," reminded them that "most women do not get up in the morning thinking about politics." They get up, she said, thinking about getting to work on time, thinking about whether their child-care arrangements will fall apart, thinking about the future for themselves and their families. "We have to be on the front lines explaining why [this election] matters."

Pollsters will tell you what matters to these women. They are attracted to the Democrats (or repelled by the Republicans) on "caretaking" issues. When it comes to taking care of children or the elderly, they simply trust the Democrats more. They also are more likely to believe that government has a role to play in our lives.

The Dole campaign is trying to cut into this perception with an arithmetic fantasy. In San Diego it said repeatedly that a 15 percent tax cut would allow women to spend more time at home with their children. Just this week, Senator Dole also tried to cut into the "values" lead with accusations that the president is responsible for a rise in teen drug use.

The Democrats meanwhile are playing up Mr. Clinton's Dad Appeal with V-chips, children curfews and compassion. If welfare reform is a chink in the president's compassion armor, the subject wasn't even brought up at a series of women's events. The party line is that we're better off with Mr. Clinton figuring out this "reform" than Senator Dole. And the truth is that welfare is no more acceptable to women voters than to men.

It took two generations before women voted in equal numbers -- and now greater numbers -- than men. Our foremothers would be flattered by all this attention on our power at the polls. But transition from the Year of the Woman Politician to the Year of the Woman Voter has its downside.

Exactly 76 years after suffrage, women in politics have made less progress than women in law or medicine or business. Women will, at best, hold onto their modest numbers in Congress. They have actually lost ground in state legislatures and only one holds a governorship. Meanwhile, the hottest "race" between women "candidates" in America features Hillary Elizabeth.

The banner at one of the suffrage day events bore a simple exhortation: Women Win. But why just walk to the polls, when you can run?


Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/29/96

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