THIS year's elections in the United States could represent a defining moment for women voters. Never have so many women run for office. And seldom have so many issues of particular concern to women - abortion, sexual harassment, family leave, among others - dominated the headlines. Whatever else the family-values debate accomplished, it reminded Americans that politics is inseparable from daily life.
But will women respond by turning out in record numbers at the polls? About 39 million eligible women failed to vote in the last presidential election, 9 million of whom were registered.
How will women vote? This speculative question gets heard the most, as if the "women's vote" constituted a bloc, to be delivered to one candidate or another. In the Year of the Woman, a number of women voters will be inclined to vote automatically for every woman candidate in sight.
A larger number may decide their vote on the basis of so-called "women's issues" - voting for Governor Clinton, for example, out of apprehension that another Republican administration will try to stand by its platform promise to make abortion illegal.
Polls indicate that women tend to be more concerned than men about the environment and in general think in terms of a socially compassionate America rather than a militarily powerful America when defining world leadership. But to balance the election on the "gender issue" is to distort the variety and unpredictability of American voters, and to neglect that first and foremost question: Will women, including those 39 million no-shows, turn out to vote, one way or another, this November?
A nonpartisan organization of some 50 women working in journalism, advertising, and the entertainment industry, calling themselves The Deciding Vote, has launched a campaign to get the missing women to the polls. One of their 30-second television ads concludes: "Most politicians still think women should be seen and not heard. Make them listen. Vote."
On television and radio, in magazines and newspapers, across billboards in airports, the message of empowerment is being repeated. It's a message that applies to all eligible voters in a time of declining partisanship, when the prevailing question is: What difference will my vote make?
Here, in fact, is an opportunity for American women to demonstrate leadership to men. This may or may not be the Year of the Woman in terms of women candidates elected. But at least it can be the Year of the Woman Voter, and that would be no mean accomplishment.