Often the most extreme sacrifices meet with the greatest indifference. Shortly after the 75th anniversary of women's suffrage, we're still wondering how many women will vote.
"Women fought their whole lives for this right," says Betsy Myers, director of the White House Office for Women's Initiatives and Outreach. "I wonder what they would think if they saw our apathy today."
Consider that in 1992, deemed the "Year of the Woman," only 62 percent of all women voted. Worse, in 1994, the number of women voting dropped by at least 10,000 in congressional districts studied by the American Association of University Women (AAUW). That year, nearly 55 million eligible women did not go to the polls.
"Women vote around specific issues and in higher percentages when they think their issues are at stake," says Deborah Reed, manager of the AAUW's voter education campaign.
Those who assumed their issues were secure were wrong. "We're realizing there's a lot at stake this year," says Reed. "Pundits say women are going to make the difference. And both parties are making sure their platforms are sensitive to women's issues. But I don't believe women themselves know they're going to make the difference."
Unfortunately, this attitude is not new. "When women got the vote in 1920, lawmakers assumed women would go to the polls in huge numbers and wrote a number of bills appealing to women's issues," says Sherrye Henry, director of the Small Business Administration's Office of Women's Business Ownership (OWBO) and author of The Deep Divide: Why American Women Resist Equality (Macmillan). "But the number was so dramatically small that [lawmakers] shelved all plans to appeal to women's interests."
"Women haven't stepped to the foreground," says Mollie Cole, president of the National Association of Women's Business Advocates. "We have taken voting as an inalienable right. But with every right, there is a concurrent obligation. Simply put, it is the obligation of every woman to vote."
Consider the consequences of not voting: Just 10 percent of House representatives and 9 percent of senators are women. Almost half the states have not sent a single woman to Congress. And only one governor out of 50 is a woman. Henry points out that every piece of legislation in the past 20 years advancing women was written by women lawmakers. "The equation is simple," Henry says. "Where women are in power, they produce legislation that benefits women."
Myers believes women entrepreneurs often don't vote because, swamped with family and work, they feel disconnected from government. "They don't have time to read the paper consistently, so all they hear are sound bites," she says.
Many groups are working to reconnect women to politics. The White House Office for Women's Initiatives and Outreach, for example, brings women's groups to the White House for briefings; its At the Table initiative arranges for officials to discuss issues with small groups of women.
The AAUW, for its part, has been trying to reach the women who stopped voting between 1992 and 1994. "In focus groups, they told us they're fed up with the rhetoric," says Reed. "We and other organizations are trying to give them straightforward, nonpartisan information about what's going on in Congress and how it affects their lives."
The AAUW and 42 other organizations have set up a fax and e-mail network to distribute Get the Facts, a biweekly, one-page update of Congressional happenings and their effects on women. Still, Reed says, "it's not just a piece of paper but one woman saying to another `Do you understand what affirmative action does?' that makes the difference."
"Women need to make an effort," Myers agrees. "With organizing, letter writing and voting, women have more power than they realize. They're just not exercising it."
Power is right. In presidential election years, almost 7 million more women than men go to the polls, making women 54 percent of the voting population, though they're only 51 percent of the general population. "If we wanted to, overnight we women could have our way," says Henry. "Do we want it? Then let's use our vote."