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Thursday, September 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Collin Levey / Times editorial columnist
Old Democrat pick-up lines aren't working on women

By Collin Levey
Special to The Times

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If the Democrats are looking for a good campaign manual for the first presidential debate, they might consider Emily Post. The women's vote isn't behaving the way it's "supposed to." Maybe the problem's with the theory.

After weeks of watching President Bush's post-convention lead widen, John Kerry got his latest hint of rejection from the damsels Democrats have taken for granted for the past few elections: Across the country, the ballyhooed gender gap has narrowed and, in some places, disappeared.

So ladies are now set to get what you might call a thoroughly modern courtship from the Democrats — quick and dirty. "Sen. Romeo" from North Carolina has been dispatched to lunch with women's groups and, well, no one imagines Kerry acquired that sunny glow for the fellas. Minivan moms, start your engines.

Kerry has been going "Live with Regis and Kelly" and heading to a Redbook luncheon (cookie recipe forthcoming?). And Democrats like former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry have predicted that Kerry will aim for some nice soft tones in tonight's debate, since women don't like to see bullies like Al Gore wandering and huffing about.

Such courtship rituals are for the benefit of the potential Bush voters who've been dubbed "security moms," much to the annoyance of certain feminist leaders. But at least this election has treated women as capable of being engaged by the great issues, rather than as just another narrow special interest, like, say, ethanol promoters.

Trying to drag women voters back to their proper concerns, NOW's Linda Berg lectures that: "As we enter 2004, few remember a time in our political history where women's rights were more in jeopardy." And speaking at a NARAL dinner last year, Kerry insisted, "Never in my years in the Senate have the rights of women been at such risk ... as they are by this administration.

"If I get to share a stage with this president and debate him," he promised, "one of the first things I'll tell him is: 'There's a defining issue between us. I trust women to make their own decisions. You don't.' "

Women will sure be looking forward to hearing that tonight, senator. And in case they didn't get the message to drop all that Iraq/terrorism/globalization stuff and get back to the feminist knitting, Ramona Oliver of EMILY's List insists the Bush campaign is just making "a concerted effort to scare women into maintaining the status quo."

That's hard to square with the notion, presumably upheld by these same groups, that women are smart, rational political creatures, capable of looking beyond "gender" concerns to the larger issues of war and peace. In fact, it's those groups that have traditionally tried to scare women with claims that America is one Supreme Court appointment away from back-alley abortions and pink-collar oppression in the workplace.

But attempts to corral women into political lockstep in the name of their common womanhood have always flown in the face of actual voting history. Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter for the women's vote 45 percent to 44 percent. Next time out, he got 56 percent of the female vote despite the presence of a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, on the Democratic ticket. Back in the Mesozoic, in fact, women were considered more likely to vote Republican — they went narrowly for Richard Nixon (hardly a sensitive, New Age man) against John Kennedy in 1960.

Besides, 30 years of feminist revolution have not taught women to despise a man in uniform. Kerry's Vietnam imagery was calculated, in part, to appeal to women's hero swoon. "If you look back at the previous Bush administration," says Lisa Cuklanz, women's studies director at Boston College, "it was damaged by the 'wimp factor,' and that wasn't just women."

A central conceit of feminists has been that women should have all the freedom of men, except for the freedom to hold diverse political opinions. "Since women's suffrage, politicians thought they would vote as a bloc, but they never did," points out Helen Bannen, head of women's studies at the University of Wisconsin, the state Kerry chose for debate prep. "Women's interests are not monolithic."

Kerry is now doing a panicky play for women, but it's not obvious what his formula might be when the traditional Democratic "women's issues" are not a big factor in this year's campaign. Kerry can't lean heavily on abortion thanks to Catholic complications. And Bush has cleverly left the issue alone, too — using gay marriage as a substitute to rally Christian conservatives.

On the big issues (security, economy), women turn out not to be so different from men. You'd think women's groups would be proud of the fact that women are wrestling with these matters and coming to their own, independent judgments. Why should nongender-related topics adhere to a "gender gap" anyway? But, of course, that ends up leaving the women's groups (nearly all of them aligned with the Democratic Party) feeling kind of useless, doesn't it?

Collin Levey writes Thursdays for editorial pages of The Times. E-mail her at clevey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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