This year's presidential candidates are intensively wooing "the women's vote" as if there really were one. President Carter, supporting ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) , insists that what women really want is economic, social, and legal justice.
Ronald Reagan is trying to tone down his hawkish image for women voters who, according to polls and research, tend to feel more strongly about pacifism than do men. He pledges to appoint a qualified woman to an early Supreme Court vacancy and asks the National Organization for Women (NOW) to reconsider its opposition to him.
Perhaps never have women's issues and women's attitudes been so prominent a discussion topic in an election campaign. And polls indicate that more women voters, for whatever mix of reasons, tend to prefer Carter to Reagan as a presidential choice.
Yet polling and political science experts insist there will be no discernable "women's vote."
"Though a lot of attention has been paid to women in this election, there's nothing to say there will be a women's bloc vote," says Dr. Barbara Farah of the University of Michigan's Center for Political Studies. She observes, for instance, that women are more likely to be split on women's issues such as ERA and abortion than men are. "Women's issues have played a central role in the rhetoric, and this particular campaign has been exciting because of its ability to mobilize women on women's issues. . . . But you won't see a women's bloc vote."
The only political issue on which women as a group tend to agree according to the experts is a strong preference for pacificism -- a preference which shows up in opposition to increased defense spending, reinstatement of the draft, and reliance on nuclear power.
It is that view which Reagan blames for his lack of popularity with women. He specifically blames Carter for distorting his image as a peace-keeper who favors war only as a last resort. But political analysts say the preference of women voters for Carter, which is particularly strong in key swing states with large blocs of electoral votes, is more likely due to a broad mix of reasons.
"You can't deny the feminist component of it," insists NOW president Eleanor Smeal. She points to Reagan's opposition to the ERA, support of a constitutional amendment banning abortion, and what she terms his highly qualified support (lacking timetables or quotas) of affirmative action efforts.
Just a few days ago Mr. Reagan asked NOW to reconsider its opposition to him which has resulted in active picketing by local NOW chapters at a number of campaign stops. In urging the change, Mr. Reagan wrote that he was working for women's rights long before it became "fashionable" to do so and that he opposes the ERA only because he feels that under the amendment women would lose the legal protection they deserve.
Mrs. Smeal, who immediately termed the letter "shocking and pathetic," says that most laws assuring women "protection" in limiting weights to be lifted or working hours have been interpreted to keep women from higher salaries and have been knocked down by the Civil Rights Act.
"Basically it's a very dated phony argument," she says. "I think Reagan's biggest problem with women voters is that he's old fashioned. His message is quite clear: He wants to keep us in our place. But how many women want to be seen and not heard?"
Recent polls indicate that those voters favoring the ERA are more sympathetic to President Carter than his opponent. Yet it is Reagan's stand on women's issues, against ERA and for a federal abortion ban, which is precisely why many other women voters are in his camp.
"I don't see any disaffection of women for Reagan," insists Phyllis Schlafly, leader of Stop ERA. She says she does not put that much stock by polls and that most women, just as men, tend to choose candidates based on a broad range of issues, including the economy: "It's the same dollar."
NOW's Mrs. Smeal, stressing that women on the average earn only 59 percent as much as men do, says she considers the economic issue to be closely tied to ERA ratification and a definite factor in female voter opposition to Reagan. When a reporter suggests that some women might prefer Mr. Reagan on that issue as a fiscal conservative, Smeal counters: "The problem for most women is not taxes; it's lack of income."
Carter may stand to gain more women's votes as the election draws closer. Women as a group rank high among voter "undecideds" and, according to political analysts, tend more than men to vote for the incumbent.