Younger women sidestep politics. Too many think the battle is won, say political caucus members
Portland, Ore. — TWO years after she graduated from college, Lois Kaltenbach attended her first meeting of the National Women's Political Caucus. The event marked her introduction to politics and the beginning of a growing commitment to activism. ``It clicked,'' Ms. Kaltenbach says of the meeting. ``I thought, `This feels right.' It was exciting to see women doing what I feel are important things. They were tackling issues that are going to have an impact on America - day care, parental leave, abortion rights. They were also showing women how to get involved in politics.''
Now Kaltenbach, four years out of college and an accounting manager for the Chicago public schools, wants to draw other young women into politics. Yet she and other caucus leaders attending the group's national convention here last month note a troubling irony. Despite the increasing visibility of women in all areas of politics, younger women are staying on the sidelines. Too young to remember the earlier struggles of the women's movement, not yet old enough to know serious discrimination, many believe equality has largely been achieved.
``It's very hard to explain that the battle has not been won,'' Kaltenbach says in an interview. ``I speak to a lot of young professional groups, and I get a lot of blank stares. It's frustrating.
``They don't realize that the rights we've achieved aren't in stone. We may be getting better salaries, for instance, but if we work for a company that won't allow us to come back after the birth of our children, we've gained in some areas and we're losing in others.''
Patricia Smothers, head of the Texas caucus in San Antonio, shares Kaltenbach's concern. ``It's wonderful that younger women take some things for granted,'' she says. ``But I don't believe they're thinking about what they could accomplish by getting into politics - that it's not a dirty business, but a way to accomplish positive changes.''
Helping a new generation of women to view politics in that light has become a high priority for the caucus. As the political arm of the women's movement, the group seeks to revitalize its own membership, which stands at 75,000 but has a high median age of 47. In the process, it also hopes to ``replenish the pipeline of talent,'' as national chairwoman Irene Natividad puts it.
``If we do not replace the women who move on with other women,'' she says, ``you won't have a pool you can count on for higher office.''
But becoming part of that pool requires a commitment of time and money many college women are unwilling - or unable - to make. Campus caucuses, Kaltenbach notes, are hard to sustain for more than a year or two.
Even after women enter the work force, many fail to see a connection between the importance of politics and their careers. The dual demands of work and home present further obstacles.
``Women are sensitive to family issues and how they integrate their personal life with the professional demands of the political world,'' says Liz Abzug, who recently founded a group called New Leadership New York to encourage young women to enter politics.
As the daughter of former New York congresswoman Bella Abzug, Ms. Abzug knows firsthand the challenges and rewards of political life. Others, she finds, ``are fearful of how you pull it off to be a good mother and an effective leader, representing your constituents. ``Young women need role models to help them say, `She did it, I can do it too.'''
Some of the most impressive role models include women elected to state legislatures while still in their 20's: Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana, Lena Guerrero (D) of Texas, Mable Thomas (D) of Georgia, and Debra Rae Anderson (R) of South Dakota.
Speaking of these young politicians, Ms. Natividad says, ``They aren't household names yet. But they are the future of American politics. They have a hard eye and a political roadmap that spells governor or senator or congresswoman. They even know how long it will take. Nobody would fault them for a lack of ambition.''
Yet role models are only part of the strategy required to attract a new generation. As Kaltenbach sees it, ``Something must happen in their lives to make them say, `This isn't right.' That will be the hook that will get them in.''
Her own ``hooks'' include speaking to women about specific issues that affect them. ``I ask them, `What about your children? What are you going to do about day care?' And I talk about discrimination in the workplace.''
Sharon Hageman, vice chairwoman of the California caucus, concurs. ``The only way we're going to get this generation to wake up is to make sure they're exposed to what we've gone through,'' she says. ``We must not shield them from it.''
Ms. Hageman began her own activism in high school by addressing and stuffing envelopes for the Republican party. Now two of her three daughters, ages 16 and 20, have demonstrated a similar early commitment to politics by attending the caucus convention here with her.
``Our mothers have a great deal of influence over our perceptions of how much we can change our environment,'' says Kaltenbach. Her own mother, she notes, ``always emphasized the importance of involvement, whether in the community or church. She's always felt that change for the good is possible.''
To promote student involvement, leaders suggest, colleges could give credit for political participation. Mentoring programs, in which public officials use high school and college students as interns, offer additional opportunities for activism.
Natividad also hopes to generate support by staging a one-day meeting at universities around the country prior to the 1988 primaries.
In the corporate world, women managers can encourage women working under them to become active. ``They must make the point to other women - how deeply men are involved in politics,'' says Susan Buck, vice president of government affairs for Sprint.
Despite the lack of young members, caucus officials remain optimistic. ``There's a lot of hope out there,'' Hageman says. ``A lot of these young women are more than ready. They just need encouragement.''
Gov. Madeleine Kunin of Vermont has framed a sort of motto for the coming generation.
``One is responsible for one's own life,'' she says. ``Passivity provides no protection.''