How Women Are Staking Out The Center

`White Males Deliver Message to Democrats: Get Lost," writes the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Men Want to Torch Washington," says USA Today. Haunted by stagnant real wages and traumatized by several years of brutal corporate downsizings, men have moved to the right. On Election Day, 54% of men voted for Republican House candidates vs. 48% in the 1992 election.

Thanks to the ballot box revolt, the politics of male fury is in the media glare. But in the long run, it's the attitude of women that may be more important. While men supported a conservative mandate for political overhaul, women were less willing to overturn the status quo, with 54% backing Democratic candidates.

Women have favored Democrats since the 1980s, in large part reflecting opinion on abortion and other social issues. But this time, gender-based economics also came to the fore. Over the past three decades, women have enjoyed new opportunities and improving living standards. Women in the workplace are reaffirming the traditional American notion of upward mobility. As has been true throughout U.S. history, improving economic circumstances are exerting a powerful moderating force--and encouraging mostly middle-of-the-road voting.

Indeed, the female voter may reflect a new centrism, one that rejects both the Republican Right's firebrand politics and traditional Big Government liberalism. The phenomenon, born both of women's progress up the socioeconomic ladder and their experience with economic discrimination, could reshape the political agenda for years to come.

SOCIAL LIBERALISM. Both parties are fighting to capture this emerging group, offering strong candidates such as Christine Todd Whitman, Republican governor of New Jersey, and Roy Romer, Democratic governor of Colorado. "Fiscal conservatism and social liberalism is becoming the center of American politics," says Susan J. Carroll, senior researcher at Rutgers University's Center for American Woman & Politics. "And more and more women are moving in that direction."

Just ask Susan Larson, the 40-year-old president of HOLCOR Corp., a maker of institutional lighting based in Riverdale, Ill. An ardent backer of liberal Presidential candidate George McGovern in her college undergraduate days, she has been moving steadily to the center. "Every year, owning a business has shifted me further to the right on economic issues. But on social issues, I'm still to the left."

Peggy Pandaleon, a 38-year-old marketing consultant from Lake Forest, Ill., finds herself moving from the right to the center. A fiscal conservative, she also "thinks there definitely is a glass ceiling and Corporate America isn't as sensitive to allowing women into the club. Probably some incentives from the government are worthwhile to accelerate the change."

Certainly, women have been moving into the economic mainstream. The principal reason is the rise of the service and information economy, which is driven by the computer, software, and telecommuni- cations industries.

It is easier for women and men to compete for jobs on equal terms in service and knowledge industries than before. Since 1982, more women than men have been getting bachelor's degrees, and women now make up about 36% of the students at law, medicine, and business schools.

EAGER ENTREPRENEURS. The wage gains by working women are stunning, especially next to those of men. Between 1979 and 1993, women in white-collar jobs saw their real average hourly wages improve by 12.2% vs. a decline of 3.3% for their male counterparts, according to Lawrence Mishel, research director at the Economic Policy Institute. True, wages of women in blue-collar occupations fell by 6.2%, but men in similar jobs suffered a 14.6% drop.

The job market has been better for women, too. In 1989, 54.3% of all women 16 years and older were employed. By October 1994, that ratio had risen to 55.6%--a jump that added roughly 1.3 million jobs for women. In striking contrast, the employment-population ratio for men, 72.5% in 1989, collapsed to 70.9% by October 1994--equal to some 1.5 million fewer men working. Moreover, women are forming small businesses at about twice the rate of their male peers.

It's that sort of economic progress that is pushing women toward the political middle--and toward power. As Roosevelt recognized in the 1930s, and Eisenhower in the 1950s, political clout in America lies with the center. So, too, in the 1990s. As they make economic gains, women increasingly will define the course of American politics.