Change, we are told, is the only constant. Yet, for millions of American women, change in the last generation has accelerated at a breathtaking pace. Since 1962, when I found myself one of 25 women in a Harvard Law School class of 550, deliberately ignored by a professor who reserved his questions for the annual ''ladies day,'' a combination of social and economic forces have interacted to involve women in what might be called a ''quiet revolution.''
Pollsters and pundits now diagnose a gender gap dividing the sexes in their attitudes toward President Reagan and his policies. The disparity is real, but it is rooted, I believe, in changes extending far beyond the control of any single president or political party.
It is ironic, for example, that the President's success in controlling inflation and cutting taxes - putting nearly $700 in the pocket of the working woman earning the median $11,000 per year - has been minimized by his critics. For it was the explosion of inflation in the '70s that drove millions of married women into the work force for the first time.
Today half of all women over the age of 16 are working outside the home. Additional growth in the female work force has come from divorced spouses.
These realities of modern America have blended with changes in the marketplace itself. As we become increasingly an economy of services instead of manufacturing, women who have found the doors to steel mills or auto assembly plants closed are discovering new and welcome opportunities in fields as diverse as data processing and agricultural research.
Today women are taking their places beside men in business, government, and the professions in unprecedented numbers. The ranks of women MBA (master of business administration) candidates have grown by nearly 800 percent during the last decade.
And with the changed roles have come fresh expectations and attitudes.
Modern woman's new-found economic involvement has virtually guaranteed independence of thought and action. Thus the gender gap and economic change are inexorably interwoven. The question before us is how to close the one by harnessing the other.
Let's begin with a dose of candor - an acknowledgement that the real gender gap we confront is not political but financial and legal. It is the shortfall between society's promise of sexual equity and the often frustrating facts of American life. And it is this gap to which we address ourselves.
The tax package of 1981, for instance: It eased considerably the marriage tax penalty, saving the family up to $300 by 1984. It broadened IRA (individual retirement account) participation, eliminated estate taxes for the spouse, boosted the child care tax credit from $400 to $720, and provided fresh incentives for employers to include day care in prepaid benefit packages.
In addition, the Treasury Department recently announced its decision to include the child care tax credit on next year's form 1040A, permitting low-income families who do not itemize deductions to take advantage of the credit. Since 46 percent of all women in the work force are mothers with children under six years of age, these initiatives represent more than verbal solidarity with working women. They add up to compassion women can put in the bank.
Equally important, the President has moved to strike down legal impediments to sexual equality. His Fifty States Project has assisted in identifying discriminatory laws and is now poised to coordinate collective legislation in partnership with governors and other state and local officials. The Department of Justice is in the process of completing a sweeping review of statutes, regulations, policies, and practices that inhibit the march of progress at the federal level.
What's more, the President has created a mechanism to implement changes in sex-biased regulations throughout the federal establishment - in everything from Secret Service provisions that specify protection for presidential widows to dozens of separate sections of the legal code that will require congressional revisions.
On Oct. 1 of this year, my husband, Bob Dole, with the strong personal support of the President, introduced in the Senate the Federal Equity Act, a bill cleansing the federal code of approximately 100 such discriminatory provisions. Although a small step, this is a necessary one in achieving equity for women under the law.
And last August 27 President Reagan announced formation of a White House Coordinating Council on Women, with myself in the chair. Our role is part think tank, part prod, a sensitive vehicle for long-term planning, giving voice to the problems and potential of women, both in and outside the home.
Such steps may account for few headlines. But they can make a positive difference for millions of American women. How we anticipate their needs in this time of change will dictate how we respond to them. By making the legal system reflect the economic realities we can further the quiet revolution. We can close the real gender gap.