Women seek to win more attention in 1988 campaign. Presidential hopefuls are avoiding discussion of issues, activists say

Ten million more women than men will be eligible to vote in 1988 elections. Yet presidential candidates, in the eyes of women political leaders, continue to sidestep issues of special concern to women, such as child care, social security, pay equity, health care, and pension benefits.

``The omission of women from campaign rhetoric has so far been the norm rather than the exception,'' says Irene Natividad, executive director of the National Women's Political Caucus. ``Why don't they target the largest clump of voters? Why is something so obvious being so intensely ignored?''

The silence is especially evident, she notes, in the 20 predominantly Southern states that will hold primaries or caucuses on Super Tuesday, March 8. Candidates in many of those states, she says, are primarily ``thinking about Rhett Butler - the white male in the South.''

To encourage politicians to address mainstream economic issues affecting women and families, and to give women a sense of their own political clout on Super Tuesday, Ms. Natividad and 150 Democratic and Republican women assembled at the American Hotel in Atlanta over the weekend for a day-long planning session dubbed ``Super Saturday.'' The event marks the beginning of what she terms ``a broad strategy to underscore the involvement of women in 1988 elections.''

Many women, according to Ann Lewis, chairwoman of the caucus's Democratic task force, ``do not care how many nuclear-armed warships are sent to Nicaragua. They do care what kind of education their children will get, and what kind of health care their parents will receive.''

That difference in perspective between men and women also affects the way women relate to campaign speeches. Even when candidates discuss issues of national concern, they may unwittingly exclude women by the language they choose. ``Words such as inflation and unemployment mean different things to men and women,'' says Joanne Howes, executive director of the Women's Vote Project in Washington, D.C.

Women, she explains, are often more vulnerable economically. Most earn less than men. They also may be the last hired and the first affected by layoffs.

Thus, rather than relating to abstract words like ``the economy'' in ``big global terms,'' Ms. Howe continues, women tend to take a more personal approach, focusing on ``how they're going to pay their bills, how they're going to get health care for a child.

``What is important in women's lives are their children. Women need to hear solutions that touch their lives. Candidates need a real understanding of this.''

Candidates must also consider the ways they convey political messages to female voters. ``Hearing from rock stars or sports heroes about how to vote doesn't move women,'' Howe says. She finds they prefer ads and campaign messages delivered by ``someone like themselves.''

In addition to their growing power as voters, women are exerting influence in high-level campaign posts. Susan Estrich, manager of Gov. Michael Dukakis's presidential bid, is the first woman to manage a major national campaign. ``The presence of women in a campaign can set the tone of that campaign,'' says Julie Weeks, senior research analyst for Market Opinion Research in Washington.

The next major event for women activists is the Women's Agenda Conference, scheduled for Jan. 22-24 in Des Moines. More than 500 women representing 30 national organizations will discuss ways to move women's issues into the campaign.

For now, she offers a modest suggestion to presidential contenders:

``Look to women not as dependents, but as economic resources. They are a gold mine to be tapped.''

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