With the appointment of a woman to the Supreme Court, President Reagan sought to patch a weak place in his political armor -- his lack of support among college-educated women.
Mr. Reagan is unique among recnet presidents in his relatively low standing among women. His more bellicose image, and his consevative stands on women's issues (like the Equal Rights Amendment [ERA] and abortion) do not tell the whole story.
Reagan's vulnerability with the women's vote means he lacks the traditional firm anchor that support from women voters usually gives an incumbent when events turn against him. Male voters, traditionally more volatile, even though they elected Reagan and continue to support him, would be more apt to leave him should the economy sour of foreign events entangle him in controversy.
The White House went to a woman for its first Supreme Court appointment to head off a predicted firestorm of controversy over reneging on what many Americans took to be a campaign promise.
Its particular choice -- Arizona Judge Sandra D. O'Connor -- is seen as a moderate within the conservative spectrum. This has angered issue-oriented conservatives. But it helps to position Reagan more favorably among the majority of the women's constituency, who also tend to be moderate on women's issues.
But most political observers do not see the proposed appointment of the first woman Supreme Court justice as wholly redressing the skepticism about him among women voters -- particularly among college-educated and professional women but also among lower-income women who see his attitudes as harsh on social security and on a range of other economic issues important to women.
Evidence of the disparity between the views of men and women on Reagan was clear on election day, and is just as evident today.
Overall, men voted 37 percent for Carter, 54 percent for Reagan, and 7 percent for independent John Anderson last November according to the CBS News-New York Times exit poll. Women voted 45 percent for Carter, 46 percent for Reagan, and 7 percent for Mr. Anderson.
By education, men and women high school graduates voted about the same -- 45 percent for Carter. But college-graduate men and women split sharply -- the men 29 percent for Carter and 58 percent for Reagan, the women 44 percent for Carter and 41 percent for Reagan.
In the latest CBS-NYT survey completed June 27, which asked about approval of the President's performance, the sex difference again appears. Overall, the public approved Reagan's performance by a 59 percent to 23 percent margin. Among men, his approval rating was 66 percent disapproval 19 percent. Among women only 53 percent approved, 26 percent disapproved.
The sex difference also is showing in party identification, as the policy implications of the Reagan era hit home. Women seem to be thinking Democratic. Republican ranks appear about evenly divided among men and women, in the latest CBS survey. But 41 percent of women call themselves Democrats compared with only 30 percent of the men. Among independents, the group most apt to shift, men lead women 44 percent to 34 percent.
"In the last election, we had the largest sex difference in history -- a 10 percent edge for Carter among women," says Tom Smith, director of the National Opinion research Center.
The principal election factor among men and women was economic performance under carter, Mr. Smith says. After that, war and peace was the biggest concern among women, follwed by the ERA and possibly abortion. "On social women's issues -- abortion, ERA, would you vote for a woman president -- there is traditionally no difference between men and women, or men are even a little more liberal," Smith says. "On anything to do with war or violence -- capital punishment, gun control -- there is a 10 percent to 20 percent difference, with women the more cautious."
White House officials acknowledge that a woman nominee was their primary choice from the outset, when Justice Potter Stewart privately announced his retirement to Vice- President George Bush in March.
Judge O'Connor's views and actions as a legislator on a range of issues put her close to the mainstream of American opinion on these issues. She leans toward the ERA: 40 percent of the public favors it, 25 percent oppose it, and 28 percent haven't an opinion, according to the June NBC poll. On abortion judge O'connor says she personally opposes abortion, thinks it suitable for legislative action, but does not take a doctrinaire stance: The public by 71 percent to 21 percent rejects a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, and prefers to leave an abortion decision to the woman and her physician. Her rejection of busing fits with the majority who oppose it.
"A woman appointee had to be a moderate," contends I.A. Lewis, opinion analyst for the Los Angeles Times. "reagan had two choices: either appoint a woman or appoint a conservative." A conservative woman would have gained Reagan nothing with the right-to- life, anti-ERA women who were already with him, while offending tha majority of women who are already skeptical of him.
"It was better to pick a woman now, and pay those due bills from the campaign ," analyst Lewis says. "Reagan came out with a pledge to appoint a woman in the first place because he was soft with women."
Michael Barone, a Democratic political strategist, agrees Reagan made a correct tactical decision. However, he does not see Reagan gaining politically from the decision in the long run..