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Will women elect the president?

More women than men are going to vote in the November election. That's why women's organizations, polarized by their "pro" and "anti" Reagan stands, are campaigning as vigorously as the presidential candidates themselves. The women' vote may well decide who will be inaugurated as President on January 20. You can bet your favorite campaign button that a spirited war will be fought among women about which candidate, Mondale or Reagan, should get their vote in 1984.

Women account for 53 percent of the voting-age population. In 1980, 49.3 million women voted, considerably more than the 43.8 million men. The gap is expected to widen in 1984. Since 1976, the percentage of women registering to vote has been going up, while the percentage of men doing so decreased.

Women are pouring into universities and professional schools. Some 53 percent of college students are women, and the number of women seeking medical degrees has tripled in recent years. Women constitute nearly half the work force today, and many are entering management positions.

So much for the numbers. What about the people? Women are playing an increasingly larger role in life outside the home--at work and in government and public affairs. Once, most women worked out of necessity. Today, the majority of women say they prefer to work, even if money isn't an issue.

The roles of American women have shifted dramatically. Today, they are better educated, more active and account for a fast-growing share of business and professional positions.

Despite the demonstrable change and improvement in the lives of women, there is still plenty of hollering out there. Radical feminists cry doomsday and have zoomed in on an opportune target--the nation's leading political figure, President Reagan. The militants love to cite the "gender gap" as proof positive that Reagan must go--the "gender gap" being the marked difference between women and men in how they rate Reagan in approval surveys.

Reagan was savaged at the Democratic convention as the greatest living enemey of women on earth, just as he had been lacerated by spokespersons for radical feminist groups during the past few years.

Kathy Wilson, chairperson for the National Women's Political Caucus, repeatedly denounced Ronald Reagan as "the worst President in history for women." Wilson, who calls herself a Republican though her home state, Virginia, requires no registration by party, drew big attention to herself when she shouted in front of the national media: "Mr. President, one term is enough!" and urged him to step down.

To appreciate the full wrath of Ms. Wilson, one must listen to her words or listen to her. "Ronald Reagan is the only American President to be elected on the basis of an ideology that has been frozen in his head for a quarter of a century," she declared at her national convention. Though acknowledging Reagan's "unremitting congeniality," Wilson concluded that his "...superficial performing skills cannot conceal the hard fact that for American women Ronald Reagan is a dangerous man."

Under Ms. Wilson, the NWPC has become almost as strident as the National Organization for Women, a group that would dearly love to barbecue Reagan on a spit. NOW's leadership has denounced Reagan so many times and with such scathing language that superlatives seem flat. During their last convention in July, the NOW delegates routinely condemned Reagan as the "single greatest threat to women's rights." NOW was among the first to endorse Walter Mondale and gave him its approval in late 1983, before the exhausting primary-caucus season began.

In February 1984, Betty Heitman, Cochairman of the Republican National Committee, decided she had had enough. She went to work and formed the National Women's Coalition, dedicated to the re-election of Ronald Reagan.

"I just did it," Heitman says. "I didn't need any approval. I have been active with women's groups for 20 years and knew there were many achieving women across the country who were concerned with women's issues, yes, but more concerned that there be a strong economy so that women would have expanding opportunities.

"The purpose was to get these achieving women to speak out. We want to remind people that the majority of women in this country do support President Reagan and are aware of what he has done for women.

"I was looking for successful leaders, not just political leaders. We had no trouble recruiting Republicans and Democrats, blacks, Hispanics and all minorities--but all women who had achieved.

"This organization is partisan to the idea of re-electing the President. But there is no narrow agenda to measure up to. Our women are not required to have a given view on ERA, abortion or federal programs. Our women have different views on those issues, and they are certainly tolerated. That isn't the case which NWPC or NOW.

"We took a show of hands at our first leadership meeting of 24 women on ERA. Twelve were for, and 12 against."

Among the first to sign on were Paula Hughes, vice president of a New York brokerage firm; Pam Shriver, the tennis pro; Barbara Rawls, a senior economist with Sun Oil Company; Elizabeth Bailey, the dean of the Graduate School of Industrial Administration, Carnegie-Mellon University; Mary Singletary, a Planned Parenthood official and immediate past president of the National Association of NEgro Business and Professional Women's Clubs; Linda J. Wachner, the president of Max Factor and Company; Moya Lear, the chairman of Lear Avia Corporation; Susan G. Fisher, a senior vice president of Marine Midland Bank; Rose Elder, who heads her own consultant firm and is the wife of Lee Elder, the famous black professional golfer; and Ninfa Laurenzo, a Hispanic who rose after being widowed, went on to build Rio Grande Food PRoducts in Houston and a string of 11 restaurants in Texas.

These 100 accomplished women don't all agree with Reagan on so-called "women's issues," but, says Betty Heitman, "They want to speak out to ensure that all Americans, especially women, understand the opportunities and maximize the benefits created by the Reagan administration."

"I completely disagree with President Reagan on abortion," says Susan Fisher, the banker. "Abortion and ERA are fundamental issues, but there is no more important issue than the economy."

Connie Austin owns a battery company in Orlando, Florida. She says: "The notion that all women care about is ERA and abortion is grossly unfair to women. We're in the work force, too. I'm a businesswoman and a single parent. It's easier to do business now than it was four years ago. I don't want to go back."

Karen Margulies, a housewife working for the National Women's Coalition in Hollywood, Florida, remarked: "I want to dispel the myth that all Jewish women in Broward County are liberal Democrats. I'm an American, Jewish, very active in a national Jewish organizations, and I'm a Republican who is very upbeat about my President."

Many women who joined Betty Heitman's coalition worked their way up from poverty. Cochairman Paula Hughes is a case in point. She won the Horatio Alger award in 1984 and is one of only three women to have received the honor.

"There's no gender gap," she says. "It's a communications gap, a misperception fostered by the Democrats and liberal Democrat-led organizations such as NOW. I want to remind women that if they want a job, a car, a salary increase, food on the table or education for their children, their best friends in politics really are President Reagan and the Republicans."

The conventional wisdom is that there is not a black person left in the Republic who is for Reagan, but heitman has a number as coalition leaders. She also has such nominal Democrats as Ellen Sills Levy, an executive vice president and partner of englehard and Associates; Gloria Portela, a Cuban-American who became a successful lawyer in Houston, Texas; and Mabel H. "Muffy" Brandon, president of the Washington, D.C., office of Rogers and Cowan, the nation's fourth-largest privately owned public-relations firm.

"We got these outstanding women because they know the President has a good story to tell, and they want it out," Heitman says. "For the first time in American history, three women are in the cabinet (Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler and U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick). That's a Republican woman sitting on the Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, not a Democrat.

"Despite all the cries from the opposition, the facts are that the tax credit for child care was nearly doubled in 1981, and estate taxes were virtually eliminated so that widows don't have to sell the family farm or business," says Heitman.

Mrs. Heitman also cites these Reagan initiatives as helping women: reducing the "marriage penalty" tax; job-training programs for single heads of households; and new Small Business Administration job-training seminars geared to women's needs

"Our leadership women are not afraid to go into the lion's den against Bell abzug, Gloria Steinem and Kathy Wilson," says Heitman. "When they try to distort the President's record, our speakers will speak up and audiences will like it because they want fairness."

heitman, 54, is soft-spoken but direct. Her voice is acented by her Arkansas birthpalce and her married life at Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Her early career was as a dietician, but she soon found herself busy rearing four children. Her husband, Dr. Henry Heitman, is a pediatrician.

By the late '60s, when her children were growing up, she had begun a political career that carried her to the top of the Republican party. She is a loyalist of the old school and believes people should show their true colors.

Much is made in the press about Kathy Wilson's being a Republican feminist who has launched a crusade against Ronald Reagan because of his alleed bias against women. Heitman says this about Wilson: "I question her Republicanism. Kathy Wilson says she voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980, though she had the option of voting for John Andeson if she didn't like Reagan. Kathy Wilson calls herself a Republican, but she acts, talks and votes like a Democrat."

Indeed, she does and personally offers enthusiastic support for Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro. As her organization opened its annual convention in September, it appeared likely that for the first time, it would endorse a presidential ticket--Mondale-Ferraro. "We are telling our Republican women who have reservations that it's time to put sex ahead of party," says Wilson. "I voted against Reagan in 1980 because I knew then what all women know now--that he is the most antiwoman politician in Ameircan history.

"We wouldn't have endorsed Reagan under any circumstances, even if he chose a woman to run with him. His credibility gap is too big. We have no problem if some of our members who are elected Republicans are for him--people like congresswomen Claudine Schneider, Lynn Martin and Olympia Snowe. These women are excellent on our issues, and that's what counts.

"We are bipartisan, you know, 35 percent of our members being Republican. We are very aware that half the women running for the U.S. Senate this year are Republicans. As long as they are right on our issues, it's O.K.

"For years, we went along with Margaret Heckler when she was in Congress because of her strong stand for ERA. But when she ran against Barney Frank, we went with him because he was prochoice and Margaret wasn't.

"Abortion is a relentless issue and is nonnegotiable. You know that NOW passed a resolution designed to prevent Congresswoman Rose Mary Okar from bringing prolife speakers to their meetings. She has been a strong feminist, especially on economic issues like pay-equity.

"We wouldn't drum anybody out of the caucus just for holding an anti-choice view. But if a member were active and visible in a prolife organization, we would have to take some action.

"We get involved some with issues other than women's rights--like the environment--but we can't fragment ourselves. For instance, some of our people believe in a nuclear freeze, but we voted down the idea of making this a major feminist issue.

"Our issues really are ERA, reproductive rights and federal funding of child care. We've got the support of more than half of Congress on these, and have done very well on child care, economic equity, pensions, abortion and insurance-equity issues."

NWPC boasts 77,000 members, 300 local chapters and a $2 million annual budget. It spent $50,000 at the Democratic convention to boost Ferraro and $10,000 at the Republican gathering in Dallas to promote an alternative platform proposal.

Since Wilson has occupied the "chair" at NWPC, it has become much more visible in the media and increasingly militant. Though Bella Abzug was among the founders, NWPC has attracted many prominent Republicans, such as Jill Ruckelshaus, whose husband has been named to high positions in the Nixon and the Reagan administrations; Mary Louise Smith, former chairman of the Republican national Committee; seasoned party workers like Pat Hutar, Patricia Bailey and Mary Dent Crisp; and a half-dozen congresswomen.

There are also personalities: actor Edward Asner; actresses Ellen Burstyn and Marlo Thomas; Francis T. "Sissy" Farenthold, first woman to be placed in nomination for vice president by the Democrats; Dorothy Height, a prominent black; TV producer norman Lear; Gloria Steinem, the feminist; and William Winpisinger, the president of the International Union of Machinists.

Wilson, 32, was elected unanimously to the chair in 1981 and 1983. She is a tireless soul--she traveled 42 states on behalf of women candidates in 1982 and spent much time lobbying Reagan's key advisors. She has a B.A. in special education and an M.A. in counseling psychology--both from the University of Missouri. The LAdies' home Journal named her one of America's "100 Most Important Women."

"I am a Republican," she says. "My father is a conservative Republican. I adore him, but we have argued for years. When I am on a national TV show, he calls afterwards and says, 'Sug [her nickname], what are you doing, talking like that?' My father is a Reagan man, is outspoken and funny. He just can't understand what I am doing with the caucus."

Kathy Wilson and Betty Heitman will face each other in discussion and debate this fall--no doubt about it. Mrs. Heitman will lament that the Democratic strategy is to divide people into groups--blacks, Hispanics and women--because "they love to hyphenate Americans."

Heitman is confident that once she and her legion of women's leaders crisscross the country with the message, Ronald Reagan will get the majority of women's votes this fall, as he did in 1980 against Jimmy Carter.

Kathy Wilson is completely sold on the idea that women must forget party and vote for Mondale-Ferraro--to vanquish the "antiwoman" President, Ronald Reagan, and to elect the first woman vice president.

It is clear these two views perceive vastly different agendas. Heitman's women agree that feminist issues are important, but less so than how th e country will be run in the next four years. Wilson's followers believe that the feminist agenda is paramount and that only the Mondale-Ferraro team will address it. Both see a tough, tight race. Wilson, aware of Reagan's campaign skills, adds: "The idea that women will vote in droves against Reagan is naive. We've got a lot of work to do."
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Author:Thimmesch, Nick
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Oct 1, 1984
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