In the week since the Republicans left Houston, it has been hard to decide whether they are waging a presidential campaign or a war against working women.
Something of the sort was implicit in the statements last week by the variety of bargain-basement brown shirts whose contempt for emancipated women rivals their hatred of immigrants and gay and lesbian people.
It was explicit in the address to the convention by the Ayatollah Pat Robertson, whose goal seems to be to transform the Party of Lincoln into an American Hezbollah. This is a man who, in one of his recent fund-raising letters, wrote: "The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."
There are at least two reasons the Republican leadership would lend its platform to proponents of such sentiments.
One is the belief that, this time around, antagonism between the sexes can be exploited in the same way that hostility between the races was used in previous presidential elections. In these hard times, according to this theory, men--and their traditionally minded wives--can be goaded into expressing at the ballot box their latent resentment against assertive women in the workplace. It is this view that makes the much-abused Hillary Clinton--the quintessential "uppity woman"--a prime target.
The other reason is the hope that a symbolic controversy over the role of women in our society will distract voters from any consideration of just how badly women and their children have fared during the past 12 years. In 1990, according to the Bureau of the Census, 33.6 million Americans, or 13.5% of all our people, lived in poverty. Since then, the figures have risen. More than 40% of the poor are children. Today, more than one in 10 American families live below the poverty level.
But, according to the Census Bureau, "the increase in the number of poor families" headed by women "accounted for 83.8% of the net increase in poor families between 1989 and 1990." Like most of the poor, most of those women work.
So much for a pro-family party platform.
This fact may explain the hostility I heard this week when I spoke to three women voters about the Republican convention and, particularly, about the speeches by Marilyn Quayle and First Lady Barbara Bush.
Like Marilyn Quayle, Jane is a lawyer. Four years ago, she took six months off after her daughter was born. Since then, she has balanced the demands of her law practice with those of the child on whom she and her husband happily dote. That means leaving meetings so she can be home precisely at 5, when her daughter expects her, and no weekend work.
It's not an easy balance to strike, but Jane rejects the idea that it is an impossible one. In that connection, I asked what she thought of Quayle's proposition that most women have no desire to be "liberated from their essential nature," which presumably is to be a wife and mother.
"Well, part of my essential nature is to eat," Jane said. "And I think the implied criticism of working women in that statement is insulting and patronizing. Most women today have to contribute to their families' support, and I think any attempt to make them feel guilty about that is disgusting and elitist."
Paula, a college graduate and entrepreneur who runs her own successful business, agrees. Happily remarried, she launched her business as a way of escaping from her first husband, who physically abused her and her daughters.
Today, her three girls are honor students attending parochial schools. Paula found the convention speeches by Quayle and Bush "insulting. They implied that any family that doesn't conform to their idea of an appropriate lifestyle is less moral, less religious, less American than they are.
"That's absurd. I don't think my children are any less moral, religious or patriotic just because their mother collects a paycheck. I don't believe there's any conflict between a woman's ambition and her morals. In my case, nothing could be further from the truth. My choice was between giving myself the power to support myself and my children and being beaten to death. The immoral choice for myself and my children would have been to continue making the kinds of compromises that would have allowed us to survive in a situation like that. That's not something a person like Marilyn Quayle with all her advantages ever can understand."
Rosalie, who has raised three children and has not worked outside her home since she married more than 40 years ago, is "about the same age as Barbara Bush. Sixty . . . well, let's just say 60 and leave it at that. I can understand why she, as a woman of our generation, would feel as she does. The choices she made, which are very much like the choices I made, were the only ones really open to us.
"I don't understand why a woman would make them today, when it is possible to do the right thing not only for your husband and children, but also for yourself. If I had it to do over again--today--I would have married later so I could have completed my education and, once my children were raised, made a contribution of my own to others.
"That's why I don't understand a young woman like Marilyn Quayle, who seems willing to sacrifice herself to become a kind of satellite of her husband's ambition. Maybe what this is about is just the fact that she was a lousy lawyer? Maybe that's why the whole bunch of them seem to resent Hillary Clinton so much."
Out of the mouths of women with traditional values. . . .