Ask voters to compare men and women politicians and they probably will reply that the women are "harder working," "more caring" and "more ethical." But they also probably will say that the men are "tougher" and "emotionally better suited" for politics.
Then also ask the voters to describe the differences between former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp. The responses, as the Los Angeles Times Poll recently found, will be strikingly similar--with stereotypes about women politicians in general spilling over into the current battle for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
All this is more than just an interesting academic exercise as Feinstein strives to become California's first woman governor. Women throughout the nation in recent years have been climbing higher on the political ladder, some into governors' offices.
And beyond the issue of who becomes California's next governor, a broader question being posed by Feinstein's candidacy--as well as others this year--is whether the state is entering into what Mervin Field of the California Poll has been predicting will be "the decade of women in politics."
"There's a mood out in the culture of wanting to elect a woman," said Margery Tabankin, executive director of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee.
Added Kathy Garmezy, the committee's abortion rights director: "There's a radarscope thing happening--(Margaret) Thatcher, (Violeta Barrios de) Chamorro, (Corazon) Aquino, (Benazir) Bhutto. . . ." Voters--especially women--notice these world leaders and realize the United States lags behind other nations in electing women to the highest positions of power, she said. "I have this desire I've never had before to elect a woman."
Feinstein's biggest boosters in polls conducted by The Times have been women, who are supporting her by 2 to 1 over Van de Kamp.
But Beverly Thomas of Los Angeles, a veteran fund-raiser for women candidates and now campaign manager for Kathleen Brown's race for state treasurer, said, "I'm not sure women are going to vote in droves for women. Now, for the first time, they \o7 may\f7 have a tendency to do that. But I don't know whether it will last. I wouldn't want to bet."
Still, she said, "There is something that is different out there. People (women) come in and want to get involved. They want to give money. Trust me, it's like night and day."
One difference, virtually every political activist agrees, is renewed tension over abortion rights after last summer's Supreme Court decision that gave states broad new power to regulate abortions.
"There are few moments in history when an issue becomes a litmus test," said Tabankin, asserting that abortion rights has become an issue upon which many women decisively measure politicians. "There's a feeling that 'no man is going to tell me how my body should function.' "
Thomas said that when Brown campaigns before women's groups she invariably is asked to reiterate her support for abortion rights. "It's got nothing to do with being treasurer, but they want to know," Thomas said. "It's like, 'OK, now we can do business.' "
"If women really are feeling a new surge to go to the polls in 1990, it was started by (abortion) choice," she said. "They've been awakened. They're personally threatened, no matter which side they are on."
"Secondly," she continued, "women who have been in lower offices are now starting to run for very exciting offices. These women are political veterans who have learned how to raise money. They have percolated up at the same time that there's this awakening."
In Feinstein's case, women voters seem to be supporting her more enthusiastically than are women political activists. Many activists, who tend to be more liberal than ordinary voters, have reservations about some of Feinstein's stands. They accuse her of being a latecomer on women's issues and are not satisfied with her positions on the environment and gay rights. Some are inclined to agree with the assertion of Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae) that Van de Kamp "is the best feminist in the race."
There also is private concern among some activists--mainly those pushing other women candidates--that there could be "too many" women on the November ballot. What would be the effect, say, on Kathleen Brown's prospects for treasurer if Feinstein were to win the gubernatorial nomination? Just how many women will the electorate vote for? A third Democratic woman, March Fong Eu, is virtually assured of renomination as secretary of state.
Three Republican women also are seeking nominations--state Sen. Marian Bergeson of Newport Beach for lieutenant governor, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores for secretary of state and former U.S. Treasurer Angela (Bay) Buchanan for treasurer.