RONALD REAGAN started a revolution 10 years ago when he campaigned for president saying that government should get off people's backs. That philosophy may be taking a turn the Gipper never expected. It may influence how women vote, particularly when it comes to abortion.
A study suggests in states where abortion is a major election issue, voters who are ambivalent about abortion are more likely to vote for pro-choice candidates.
Such voters do not necessarily identify with feminism, and often are not comfortable with abortion. But they are a lot less comfortable with the government interfering with their lives.
Debra Dobson, assistant professor at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, studied the only two state elections for governor held last year - those in New Jersey and Virginia. They were the first gubernatorial elections held after the Supreme Court's Webster decision giving states more authority to restrict abortion.
Researchers conducted interviews with 4,400 registered voters and 90 legislative candidates. Interviewers asked voters if they favored or opposed government restrictions on abortions, then asked voters seven questions to analyze their attitudes on the subject.
What the polling data revealed was that the people in the middle - those who feel conflict on the issue of abortion - were likely to be pro-choice, if only to keep government off their backs.
``There is a possibility that Ronald Reagan's revolution made it possible for the resurgence of the pro-choice side, by making people less comfortable with government restrictions and government intruding in people's private decisions,'' said Dobson.
The polling data also showed that although the Republican Party is most strongly opposed to abortion, Republican voters - particularly women - were willing to cross party lines and vote for Democrats if the candidates were pro-choice.
The pro-choice candidates won the governor's races in New Jersey and Virginia. But in Virginia the abortion issue was more heavily emphasized. Unsurprisingly, women there came out to vote in droves.
Dobson said a Republican legislator from northern Virginia remarked on the heavy turnout of women. The legislator said, ``On election day, between 6 and 7 p.m., the single women going to the polls made a wall of women.''
Two states does not a trend make. But the abortion issue directly affects women more than men, simply because the legislative wrangling involves restricting females. So it is, at its most basic, a woman's fight. And I've wondered whether the issue would finally galvanize more women into entering the political arena. Women make up only 5 percent of Congress and just 17 percent of state legislatures nationwide.
Dobson says more women are running in some states, but the reasons why won't be clear until she has a chance to study the elections and the results. She did say she has been contacted by a journalist in Idaho who said that 25 percent more women are running for political office there. More women are running for the Idaho state legislature, according to the Idaho secretary of state's office. But the increase is less dramatic - about a 12 percent increase.
Abortion is a hot issue in Idaho, since last March the governor vetoed a bill banning abortion. The legislation would have permitted abortion only in cases of incest or rape, but, according to the New York Times, the bill would have given the father - the rapist - the authority to get a court order to block the abortion, thus forcing his victim to carry the child to term. (I hadn't realized the Ayatollah Khomeini was a member of the Idaho legislature.)
Pennsylvania, which now has the most restrictive abortion law in the 50 states, also is seeing an unusual surge of political activity among women. Pennsylvania ranks 46th out of 50 states and Washington, D.C., in numbers of women holding political office, according to the Eagleton Institute. But Pennsylvania's ranking may soon improve. Fifty-four women have survived primaries and are running for the Pennsylvania Senate and the statehouse, 25 percent more than ran in 1986.
The issue of abortion is miserable and divisive. But some good may come of it if the issue sparks a ``wall of women'' into not only voting, but also running - and winning - elective office.