What makes US women voters cross in '96?

As female suffrage turns 75, polls show gender politics may be the key to next year's election
SEVENTY-FIVE years ago yesterday, a young Republican congressman from Tennessee cast the decisive vote required to pass a constitutional amendment granting American women the right to vote. Harry Thomas Burn, 23 at the time, voted in favour after receiving a letter from his mother which said, "Don't forget to be a good boy."

In an address from the congressional floor, Mr Burn explained: "I know a mother's ad- vice is safest for her boy to follow. But I appreciate the fact that an opportunity as does seldom come to mortal man to free 17 million from political slavery was mine. I do it not for any personal glory but for the glory of my party."

Among the tens of thousands of women who took part in marches yesterday all around the United States to mark the anniversary of their forebears' victory, a few might have allowed themselves a smirk in recollection of Mr Burn's words.

Until the 1950s women were good girls and voted as their husbands and fathers instructed them. During the 1960s and 1970s a handful of deviants challenged the patriarchal order, giving Republicans a shade more of the female vote than the Democrats. In the early 1980s, after Ronald Reagan's ascension to power, came the sea-change. Women started voting in significantly greater numbers for the Democrats, while men shifted allegiance to the Republicans.

"Today the gender gap is wider than ever," said Jody Newman, executive director of the non-partisan National Women's Political Caucus. "It grew in 1990 and 1992, and it grew again in 1994." Without the irritant of the female voter, it is now clear, the glory of Mr Burn's Republican Party heirs would be assured not only in next year's presidential election but for many years to come. The gender gap, US election-watchers are saying, has become a permanent feature of the American political landscape.

Ms Newman's caucus released a study last week which showed that in last year's congressional election, which the Republicans won, 11.1 per cent more women than men voted for the Democrats. Other statistics show that 4 million more women voted Democrat than Republican.

Numerous surveys in recent months indicate that since Newt Gingrich's Republicans seized control of Congress, the gap has widened. The most instructive of the surveys, conducted by Republican and Democratic pollsters, appeared in US News and World Report earlier this month. It found that 54 per cent of women gave President Bill Clinton a positive approval rating, against 37 who did not. In contrast, 53 per cent of men disapproved of him, while 37 per cent approved. The findings on Mr Gingrich, the dominant figure in the Republican Party, were the exact opposite.

The principle driving the Republican "Contract with America" is that big government is a bad thing and must be cut down: a majority of women disagreed, whereas a majority of men agreed. When it came to the Contract's specifics, the differences became stark. By a resounding majority of 56 to 27 per cent, women said the Republicans had gone too far in cuts on federal spending, the corner-stone of Mr Gingrich's "Second American Revolution"; a more slender majority of men said they were doing the right thing.

The finding that indicated most eloquently how far women have evolved politically in the last 75 years was one revealing that although two-thirds of women polled said they voted differently to their husbands, half the men laboured under the delusion that their wives voted as they did.

One thing women are not keeping secret is their distaste for the Speaker of the House of Representatives. "It is striking how much women hate Newt Gingrich," said Guy Molyneux, an analyst at Peter D Hart Research Associates in Washington. "Women dislike Gingrich's harshness and his tone, as well as what he says. The word I hear most from women to describe him is arrogance. A lot of them will say that when he comes on TV, they change the station. They can't bear to see his face or hear his voice in their living-rooms.'' The question is, why do American women react one way to the Gingrich phenomenon and men another? Frank Wilkinson is the spokesman of Emily's List, an organisation which raises money for female Democratic candidates. Close study has led him to the conclusion that women are congenitally more common-sensical than men, much less susceptible to the cavalier political gesture. "Men seem to believe a lot of what they hear from the likes of Gingrich: this idea that if we just cut off these programmes, everything will be much simpler and take care of itself. Whereas women say, `Wait a minute, what do you mean you're going to cut child welfare, and student loans, and school lunches? What do you mean you won't support the right to choose?' "

A woman who thinks precisely this way is Sydney Rubin, a single mother who works for the federal government in Washington. She believes the harsh turn American politics has taken in the Gingrich era will provoke a female backlash. "Women in this country are outraged at what the Republicans are doing," she said. "I meet women in all walks of life and we're mad as hell. Women will vote in great numbers next time around."

Will they? That may be the decisive question of the 1996 presidential election. Last year's congressional election, as conventional wisdom has it, was a triumph for the Angry White Men. Women stayed at home, the figures show, in far greater numbers than in 1992, when Mr Clinton won; while the men, distressed by the image of hen-pecked indecision they saw in their President, turned out with a vengeance to cast their votes for the rip-roaring Republicans.

Now, the women having had a glimpse of the neo-Republicans' vision for America, the battle lines have been drawn for next year. Which is not to say that all the women are lining up on one side and all the men on the other. But, as Susan Carroll of the Centre for the American Woman in Politics observed: "Women are in the majority in the population and it doesn't take that great a proportion of them to vote one way to have a critical impact on the next election result." The key, she said, "will be whether women's political energies are ignited in the same way as the men's were last time around."

If women do translate outrage into votes, the Republicans may have cause to recall the words of Bainbridge Colby, the Tennessee secretary of state on whom it fell to sign the documents enshrining the right of women to vote. Upon completion of his task, Colby stood up and, echoing the words of a US admiral before the Battle of Manila, declared: "I say to the women of America: You may fire when ready!"