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The first gender gap

Members of the National Women's Political Caucus striving to exploit the gender gap might heed the experience of women following passage of the suffrage (19th) Amendment in 1920. Quarrels within the feminist movement, strategic blunders, male opposition, and a conservative rather than a progressive gender gap killed initially promising efforts to advance women's rights.

Between the August ratification and the November 1920 election, politicians scrambled to court the woman voter. Even Warren Harding, the candidate of normalcy, advocated equal pay for equal work, federal aid to mothers and infants , and a national department of social services.

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Both parties gave women equal representation on their national committees. And a virtually all-male Congress subsequently enacted the Sheppard-Towner Act for the health care of mothers and babies (1921), the Cable Act granting independent citizenship for women (1922), and a Child Labor Amendment to the Constitution (1924). ''Every Congressman had a distinct sense of faintness at the thought of having all the women in his district against him,'' complained a spokesman for the American Medical Association after passage of the Sheppard-Towner Bill. ''Male opposition he was used to. But, the woman's vote! Awful thought!'' And Sen. William S. Kenyon (R) of Iowa admitted that ''if members could have voted on the measure secretly in their cloak rooms it would have been killed as emphatically as it was finally passed in the open under pressure from the Joint Congressional Committee of Women.''

Feminist lobbyists soon found that although women did vote differently than their husbands and fathers, this gender gap posed no threat to business as usual in the male-dominated politics of the times. Unmoved by feminist priorities, a greater proportion of women than men voted for candidates least likely to threaten the status quo. Endorsement of stand-pat politics by women voters dashed feminist hopes that they would lead a drive for social reform and women's rights. ''I know of no politician who is afraid of the woman vote on any question under the sun,'' lamented Democratic committeewoman Emily Newell Blair as early as 1925.

After suffrage, many women opposed further change in the social order and feminists failed to provide an institutional base for sustaining dissent and involving women in politics. The dismally low turnout of women increased only in 1928, after the Democrats raised the traditional ''feminine'' issues of religion and drink by nominating a Catholic opponent of prohibition (Al Smith).

Organized feminists fought over the direction of a post-suffrage movement. ''Social feminists'' sponsored woman's rights as part of a reformist agenda that included legislation to give women special protection denied to men. But ''hard-core'' feminists focused on gaining strict equality for women and disparaged protection as destructive of that goal. In 1923 the National Woman's Party introduced in Congress an Equal Rights Amendment that social feminists bitterly opposed. Gleefully, males sat back and watched women argue with one another. Neither the ERA, however, nor any issue promoted by social feminists remotely matched the appeal of the now settled matter of suffrage.

Although the tiny band of hard-core feminists had formed a Woman's Party even before suffrage, the vastly larger body of social feminists who belonged to the National American Woman's Suffrage Association (NAWSA) disputed how best to use their institutional strength and a membership estimated at 2 million. Undecided between starting a party of their own or boring from within established organizations, leaders of NAWSA compromised on transforming their association into the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan educational organization. Lacking an issue as compelling as suffrage and stymied by the conservative voting of women, the League enrolled but a small fraction of NAWSA's membership. And poorly designed to influence partisan politics, it failed either to help women become an independent force or an influential group within the parties. Social feminist strategy, charged critic Anne Martin in 1925, left women ''exactly where men political leaders wanted them, bound, gagged, divided, and delivered to the Republican and Democratic Parties.''

As fear of women's political muscle eased, their slots on the national committees became token positions rarely filled by an appointee inclined to challenge male control. The Child Labor Amendment died in the states, and after 1924 Congress passed no major bills responsive to feminist demands. It even took a backward step in 1927 by failing to reauth-orize the Sheppard-Towner Act. By the decade's end, a promising beginning for the women's movement had turned into a rout.

As post-suffrage surprises reveal, the politics of gender gap can be a dangerous game to play. Not only may voters defy predictions as they did in the 1920s, but gender differences may result from changes in the preferences of either men or women. President Reagan's popularity, for instance, recently rose in one poll by nine percentage points among men and by only one point among women, expanding the gender gap by eight points, but also increasing the President's standing by five.

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Still, a distinctive women's vote can again be influential, when buttressed with continuing efforts to keep turnout high and, this time, to exploit partisan politics both by seeking power within parties and by independently deploying resources for rewarding friends and punishing enemies (including presidents) at the polls. Although women should be specially recruited to seek public office, disappointment with the women serving on party committees warns that gender alone should not be the criterion for feminist support.

Ironically, defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment may provide today's movement with a unifying issue lacking 60 years ago. But women are not single-issue voters and the ERA by itself has not sparked significant gender differences in voting. Evidence suggests that women are now responding differently than men to economic and foreign policy issues indirectly related to the push for equality. With special protection for women no longer a point of contention among feminists, the movement of the 1980s may find it can be most influential when united with male allies behind a broad program of reform.

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