ECONOMIC difficulties on the home front may be doing for women what years of angst over feminist issues have failed to do - unite a decisive majority of them around the traditional bread and butter issues, giving them the clout to pick the next president.
Polls show President George Bush's standing with women has fallen fast since he came under criticism for his failure to take control of the debate over how to jump-start a sluggish economy.
If their economic woes pull women together into a solid voting bloc, the "gender gap" may finally enable women to play a decisive role in putting a Democrat in the White House this fall.
Polls taken in Florida and Maryland by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research last month show women have turned on Mr. Bush in bigger numbers than men, only nine months after Bush's popularity soared during the Gulf war.
The poll in Maryland taken in mid-December showed voters, by a 56-43 edge, view Bush's performance negatively as the nation's attention is being focused on problems at home. A Florida poll taken earlier gave Bush better numbers - 52-48 favorable - but still poor for a conservative state.
The striking thing was Bush's weakness among women. They gave him negative numbers in both states - 61-38 in Maryland and 56-44 in Florida - while men still gave him favorable ratings.
What appears to be a new political solidarity among females is emerging just as more women are ready to go after Senate and House seats, in part because the supply of female candidates is increasing at a local level. Women's share of state legislative seats rose from 4.7 percent in 1971 to 18.2 percent in 1991.
High-profile women Democrats are candidates for the Senate next year in California (Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Barbara Boxer) and New York (Geraldine Ferraro and New York City comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman).
In 1990 the Republicans recruited three pro-choice women in Congress to run against incumbent Democratic senators - Pat Saiki in Hawaii, Lynn Martin in Illinois, and Claudine Schneider in Rhode Island. It was a big disappointment to GOP strategists when all three lost, in part because their sisters didn't give them hoped-for support.
The most startling example of women's failure to back one of their own was the poor showing made by Ms. Martin (now secretary of labor) against Sen. Paul Simon. Martin won only 32 percent of the women but 44 percent of the men. Ms. Schneider and Ms. Saiki ran stronger races but, like Martin, didn't get the extra boost they needed from women.
This lack of female support wasn't limited to Republican women. In California, Ms. Feinstein's campaign for governor faltered when her support among women failed to match Gov. Pete Wilson's strength among males.
One reason women's issues like abortion, family leave, and child care don't help women is that they have come to be seen as mainstream issues of concern to both sexes. The issue that helped women in 1990 was taxes. In New Jersey Republican Senate candidate Christine Whitman tarred Sen. Bill Bradley with the tax increases of Gov. James Florio and nearly pulled off the upset of the decade. Her strong showing brings us closer to the key to voting patterns in this country.
White males have been the largest monolithic voting bloc in national elections for the last decade because they share an overriding concern with the rate of economic growth in this country, the availability of jobs, the size of the federal tax bite, and the need to keep the country strong. Since Democratic candidates did not address their concerns in these areas, white males voted overwhelmingly for GOP presidential candidates. Why haven't women, white women in particular, been a similarly unified voting
Women made major strides in the world of business and the professions in the '80s. Politicians noticed it. So did reporters who followed congressmen around their district and found half the seats at Chamber of Commerce luncheons filled with women. These women are learning what the individualism cherished by white males is all about.
But this trend did not unite women around a common agenda. Why? Because for every young woman in law school or starting her own business, there's a middle-aged divorced woman reentering the work force with no marketable skills.
Once there, the newcomers experience discrimination. If they get a job as a bank teller, they see the promising young men hired after them move up faster than they do. It radicalizes many of them. They gain a new appreciation for society's "safety net" and the politics of dependency.
"The dilemma of individualism versus protection persists in social policy and politics, dividing women against one another as well as men," writes Elizabeth Fox-Genovese in her book "Feminism Without Illusions."
For the last 20 years, the Democratic Party has opted for dependency politics to protect the "victims" of past discrimination, a policy that alienated white males and split women down the middle. Only the minorities supported it in large numbers.
But the current recession is causing many more women (as with many men) - including those in the middle-class, white-collar work force hit hard by the downturn - to say that Bush has an attitude problem when it comes to the domestic economy.
If Bush hasn't shaken that image by October, look for a change in voting patterns at a presidential level. It could sweep some women into Congress, too.