Women: not just another `special interest'

WHEN George Bush unveiled his $2.2 billion child-care plan in July, cynics and critics accused him of ``pandering to feminists.'' A few weeks later ``pandering'' popped up again, this time in New Orleans. Republican platform writers, drafting a plank on economic opportunity, added ``women'' to the phrase, ``the GOP is the natural champion of blacks, minorities, women, and ethnic Americans.'' But a male delegate objected, saying, ``We should no more have women in our platform than we have men. ... It would be absolutely pandering to a single constituency where we appear, according to the pollsters, to be having a problem.''

The complaints recall 1984, when Walter Mondale, the Democratic presidential candidate, came under fire for choosing Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate. Critics charged him with ``caving in'' to the demands of the National Organization for Women and ``selling out'' to feminists.

These are harsh words that, in a political context, seem especially frequently applied to issues affecting women. No one, for instance, accused Michael Dukakis of ``pandering'' to Texans when he selected Sen. Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate - a move designed to capture the important Texas vote. Nor was George Bush seen as ``pandering'' to Midwesterners or young people in his choice of Sen. Dan Quayle as his No. 2.

Similarly, opponents of the recent catastrophic health care bill stopped short of accusing legislators of ``pandering to the elderly.'' The same holds true for other bills favoring other groups.

Susan Carroll, a senior research associate at the Eagleton Center for the American Woman and Politics, explains the linguistic double standard this way: ``When candidates are seen as doing something that primarily benefits white males in the society, it's never referred to as pandering or responding to a special interest. But when candidates do something that responds to the needs that blacks face, or women face, or Hispanics face, then they get referred to as paying special attention to a special interest.''

``Pandering'' may be defined as elective officials promising to grant an undeserved favor for self-serving reasons.

Speaking of child care, Ms. Carroll says, ``Most American women should be insulted by the notion that this is somehow pandering to a special interest. Child care is a basic need women have. It's not a marginal issue and a response to some small narrow interest group out there. If you look at the stats on the proportion of women with young children in the work force, child care is an issue that's long overdue in terms of candidates seriously addressing it.''

This may be the last election year that critics can get away with using emotionally charged phrases such as ``pandering'' or ``caving in'' when referring to so-called ``women's issues.'' American women comprise more than half the population. Political analysts also expect them to outnumber men at the polls in November by eight to 10 million. It is dangerously inaccurate to treat women as a minority.

Women's issues are making their way onto the political agenda, not because they are ``special'' and something to ``pander'' to, but because they are as wide-ranging as they are urgent. In many cases they are more properly described as ``family issues,'' and it is in this palatable form that their legitimacy is being recognized by male politicians.

Washington has ``discovered'' the family this year, in the form of a parental leave bill now before Congress and in some child-care initiatives. Irene Natividad, chairwoman of the National Women's Political Caucus, hails this as the ``mainstreaming'' of issues.

``My feeling is that any time a child-care center becomes the regular pit stop for a candidate along with the factory gate, you've won,'' says Ms. Natividad. ``I don't care what it is that makes politicians start paying attention. If this is what it takes, eight to 10 million more of us at the polls, fine. They're going to have to pay even more attention in the future, because there are going to be even more women voters.''

As women's lives express more possibilities, more and more of what politicians do - or don't do - will affect them. To include women in a platform - or even on a ticket - is simply to recognize the right of the governed to participate in the governing. If this is ``pandering,'' it seems to be what the Founding Fathers had in mind - only they called it democracy.

Marilyn Gardner is on the Monitor's staff.

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