Recent elections reveal an emerging women's bloc
''It was the dream of the suffragettes,'' says Judy Murphy of the National Organization for Women (NOW), ''that a women's vote would develop.'' Now, 61 years after the passage of the 19th Amendment that gave the vote to women, such a voting bloc seems to be emerging.
Since the first national election in which women participated, their votes have tallied roughly with those of male voters. But in the last national election, a poll conducted by the New York Times and CBS showed an 8 percent gap between Ronald Reagan's support among men and women, with 54 percent of the men voting for Reagan, compared with 46 percent of the women - a gap widely touted by Democrats and women's groups as a ''trend.''
Others - notably Republicans - remained skeptical, while acknowledging that Reagan's standing among women continues to slip. A Gallup poll taken last summer showed 66 percent of the men approving the President's performance, while 52 percent of the women had the same opinion.
And findings from a U.S. News & World Report survey in May were even more drastic, showing that 39 percent of ''women leaders'' approved of Mr. Reagan, compared with 67 percent of their male counterparts - a gap of 28 points.
Reagan's poor showing among women leaders sits well with the theory some political analysts hold - that the women's vote, if it exists at all, largely reflects the views of women in the working force. Housewives and retired women voted 52 to 41 percent for the Republican candidate, the CBS election day poll says, but working women split 46 to 45 percent between Reagan and Jimmy Carter.
Many reasons have been put forth to explain this difference. Initially, analysts saw it as a ''peace vote,'' saying that Reagan was perceived as more likely to enter a war than Mr. Carter - a likelihood women were inclined to vote against. The Republican platform's strong anti-ERA and anti-abortion stands were also mentioned as reasons for Reagan's narrow victory with women.
NOW feels it is these last two issues, though, that really made the difference. As Ms. Murphy puts it, ''Women see that many of Reagan's budget cuts are aimed directly at . . . women and children.''
Betty Rendel, president of the National Federation of Republican Women, disagrees, saying, ''That sounds like a lot of bleeding hearts to me. The fact is that President Reagan did receive more votes from women than Carter. There are always an awful lot of people trying to read a lot into every move.''
The latest move came in last month's elections in Virginia and Florida, which brought a total of five new supporters for the Equal Rights Amendment to the statehouses. In Florida, two pro-ERA candidates defeated anti-ERA candidates for seats in the House and Senate, while Virginia picked up three new ERA supporters in the House. Both states are expected to vote on the amendment during the next year.
In the race for Virginia's statehouse, a cousin of conservative columnist William F. Buckley launched an anti-ERA campaign against the amendment's chief proponent in Richmond, and lost. But the most dramatic gain for women came from Virginia's rural southwest, referred to by Ms. Murphy as ''a kamikaze district - they haven't elected a Democrat since 1965.''
There, Joan Munford, a former schoolteacher, agreed to run against the incumbent, the Republican minority leader in the Virginia House of Delegates. ''There was no way I could win,'' she is quoted as saying. ''When we figured it out mathematically, if I had been the top choice of 7 out of 10 people and they had voted for me and two Republicans, I still would have lost the race.''
Ms. Munford beat the odds, and credits her victory partly to the hundreds of pro-ERA volunteers from the Virginia Women's Political Caucus and NOW who worked throughout the state to identify and support pro-ERA candidates from both parties. The overall effort cost Virginia's chapter of NOW $40,000 and ''thousands of volunteer hours,'' says NOW's Virginia chairwoman, Pat Winten.
The Virginia campaign also included a successful bid for governor by Lyndon Johnson's son-in-law, Charles Robb, in a close victory that Republican Rendel attributes to black voters. Pollsters agree that Mr. Robb's strong support among blacks made a real difference, but again, a gap appeared between male and female voters.
In a poll taken six days before the election by the Washington Post, Robb held support from 56 percent of the voting women and only 46 percent of the men. While both gubernatorial candidates in the race supported the ERA, analysts felt that the strong stand Robb's mother-in-law, Lady Bird Johnson, has taken for the amendment confirmed his image as ''pro-women,'' while his opponent's close identification with President Reagan gave him the opposite image. Robb is the first Democrat to win the governor's seat in Richmond since 1962.
These two state elections give at least tentative confirmation to what NOW calls a ''women's vote,'' a voting bloc perceived by some campaigners as worth cultivating. The wooing of the women's vote went on during the last campaign chiefly in the form of support for the ERA, says NOW's Ms. Winten, who calls such support ''the bellwether of women's issues.''
The Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, in fact, used his support for the ERA to ''show the difference between himself and his Republican opponent ,'' she says, ''and that's got to mean something.''
Results of the 1982 elections could confirm the existence of a women's vote, but for now, women's groups are advising candidates to treat it as though it is already there. ''We're talking about half the voters in this country,'' NOW's Ms. Murphy points out. ''That's quite a voting bloc.''