The new battleground for women's rights

The 44.6 million women who work are taking the matter of equal rights into their own hands - on the job and at the polls.

In many respects, June 30, 1982, was one more day in the ever-stronger movement of women who have learned important lessons in the last 10 years. We're prepared to move the battle for equal rights from the confines of four state capitols to polls and personnel offices across the country.

We are no longer the same nation of women we were 10 years ago. Historic changes occurred during the decade the battle for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment lasted. By 1978 more women of working age were in the paid labor force than were at home. And every payday we received the ultimate object lesson in equal rights - paychecks unequal to the task of supporting ourselves and our families.

At the same time we were entering the workforce, at the rate of about 1 million a year, the American economy began making an historic shift, away from a manufacturing base toward a service base. Demand for service and clerical workers grew, and continues to grow, making these job categories the largest in the United States. Today, one out of every three women working is a clerical worker, and demand for clericals continues.

As women found themselves working full-time, but unable to make ends meet on salaries which ring in as the lowest in US industry on the average, they also found themselves denied opportunity to move into or up to better-paying positions. And something else occurred of historic significance. Ordinary women began to organize and, organized, to place the blame for economic inequity where it belongs, on our law-enforcement officials and on our employers. Successful use of our organized power led to a new discovery for women: officials enforce the laws and corporations change policies when it is expedient. Organized, we learned firsthand, we become the irresistible force for change.

How long could it be before we learned to transfer this principle to the world of electoral politics? Polls show it began in 1980. In another historic first, women split sharply from men in their choice for president. Furthermore, as a group, we demonstrated that we are slightly more likely to vote than men, and our party loyalties are deeper.

Following the 1980 elections women told Harris pollsters they would vote in favor of Democratic candidates in the 1982 elections by a whopping 11-point margin. And in all this, working women display an even better voting profile than women who don't work. Many political anaylsts are now saying that the emerging ''women's vote'' is the key to electoral success in the '80s.

In the last couple of years it has been the ordinary working woman at her traditional office job who has supplied the trade union movement with its best hope in decades for revitalization and democracy. American partisan politics, sorely in need of new vision and inspiration, might similarly benefit by addressing the needs of this constituency.

Down the road, but maybe no further down than the end of this decade, lies a final winning of equal rights. From employers we demand fair pay and pol-icies which provide benefits which allow us to take care of our growing families and pensions which allow us to take care of ourselves in retirement.

Employers who have been monitoring the social environment for the last 10 years know it is time to provide these essentials, if for no other reason than they know we will vote in the union to obtain and preserve them.

This November women have a more immediate opportunity to demonstrate our new voting identity. In return for our votes, we demand that candidates take a firm stand on issues of concern to us, including funding for enforcement of existing laws and regulations and support for legislation protecting us from unsafe workplaces, protection for older workers, and initiatives which aid working families.

For those seeking reelection who have failed us on issues of concern to us, working women must take the National Organization for Women's advice and ''Vote 'em out!''

Women are the majority of this country's citizens, its newest workers and voters. Adding our 62-year-old right to vote to the sizable legacy of the ERA struggle we will achieve equal rights by voting our interests. And whether voting for political or union representation, we will be voting the interests of a new majority, still constitutionally overlooked, but powerless no longer.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.