What About Women?

It wasn't much of a march on the White House last Wednesday -- two dozen leaders of women's groups and their staffs. The chants carried the ring of a bygone era. ""Hey hey, ho ho, discrimination has got to go!'' But their protest went to the heart of a debate that threatens to divide the country. Affirmative action, they argued, is being defined -- and demonized -- by its opponents as a racial issue. For black civil-rights leaders, the women were a welcome sight. Faced with a hostile Republican Congress, and a president desperate to win back the so-called angry white males who abandoned the Democratic Party last November, affirmative-action proponents are struggling to shift the terms of the turbulent national debate from race to gender. Their most important ally could turn out to be the Angry White Female.

Can playing the gender card help save affirmative action? Some Clinton aides seem to think so. As the White House finishes its ""top to bottom'' review of affirmative action, Clinton aides are grasping for any angle that will help them shape a major presidential address sometime in the next two weeks. ""It is useful to move the debate from 12 percent to 51 percent of the American people,'' says one. But the issue of women and affirmative action is also fraught with generational complexities. Many young women reject the notion that they need special preferences to help them advance in the workplace. ""I would be uncomfortable receiving a job if I knew that the reason was that I was female,'' says Alexandra Carter, 19, a sophomore at Georgetown University. A Newsweek survey taken last month shows that white women are not much more sympathetic to special consideration for women (30 percent) than they are for blacks (29 percent).

For some older women, however, affirmative action has been a ticket out of low-paying jobs and sexual stereotypes. The ironies of gender and affirmative-action politics were embodied last week by one of Washington's premier power couples. Just last year, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole voted to set aside some federal contracts for women and minorities. That was before he became a bona fide front runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Now he's calling for an endto all federally sponsored affirmative-action programs. ""The American people sense that the race-counting game has gone too far,'' he said. Yet while Dole was strengthening his right flank, his wife, Red Cross executive director Elizabeth Hanford Dole, was on a different mission. A former secretary of labor and a 1965 Harvard Law graduate -- when few women were practicing attorneys -- Mrs. Dole presented a Labor Department award to Xerox Corp. for its affirmative-action track record. She praised Xerox for making ""the advancement of women and minorities a priority.''

Affirmative action is a broad umbrella, covering everything from aggressive corporate recruiting to preferences in college admissions to numerical goals that sometimes lapse into quotas. By most measures, women have been the greatest beneficiaries. While African-Americans have made only modest gains in the workplace in the last decade (their share of professional and managerial jobs is up from 5.6 percent to 7.1 percent over the last decade, according to government statistics), women have thrived. They now hold more than 40 percent of all corporate middle-management jobs. Since 1982, businesses owned by women have grown by more than 57 percent. Even the ""glass ceiling'' that keeps many women outside the executive suites is not quite as impermeable as studies depict (page 24). Some critics say the task is done, and that affirmative action for women can be scaled back, if not entirely eliminated.

But the politics of the issue tilt differently. Plenty of women -- especially those in ""pink collar'' jobs -- still want the advantages afforded by affirmative action, and believe they are an important hedge against residual discrimination. Dole and other conservatives know this, and it makes them eager to paint preference programs in strictly racial terms. Carol Moseley-Braun, the Senate's only African-American, accuses Dole of ""race-baiting.'' Says Donald Payne, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC): ""Republicans are trying to make this a black thing.''

Payne and other civil-rights leaders will now try to make affirmative action a women's thing. The idea emerged in a conference room at the Washington Court Hotel on Feb. 22. The occasion was an NAACP meeting on national legislative strategy. One member asked whether the organization should enlist the help of white women in the fight against the California ballot initiative to wipe out racial and gender preference programs. Mary Frances Berry, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, responded: ""White women have been conspicuously absent in this national struggle.'' Two weeks later a coalition of women's and civil-rights groups formed to oppose theCalifornia initiative.

Since then, defenders of affirmative action have worked to put white women at center stage. Just before last week's pre-march press conference, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund director Elaine Jones, a black woman, decided not to speak and opted to sit in a chair far from the podium. Several black and Latino women spoke, but whites predominated. Civil-rights leaders also pushed the gender angle with officials who have Clinton's ear. At a party earlier this month celebrating publication of a new book by Clinton polltaker Stan Greenberg (who writes that Democrats need to move away from race-based preference programs), White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry approached civil-rights activist Ralph Neas for advice. Neas urged McCurry to talk about women as well as blacks. ""Think about this in a broader sense than race,'' Neas said.

For Clinton, the gender issue is a potential boon, but only if he negotiates a course full of political obstacles. To keep his party's liberal base intact, he must finda way to blunt the Republican assault on affirmative action. Yet to win back the middle-class men he needs for re-election, he'll have to show that he's not just a defender of the status quo.

In recent weeks a parade of Democratic interest groups have come to the White House to pressure the president. Thecentrist Democratic Leadership Council, which Clinton once led, has urged him to gut preference programs. The CBC's Payne exhorted Clinton to ""take the moral high ground'' and stand behind affirmative action. After Jesse Jackson met with Clinton earlier this month, senior adviser George Stephanopoulos and other aides huddled in McCurry's office to listen on a special audio feed as Jackson briefed reporters on the White House driveway. Officials feared a hostile diatribe (""We thought he might go out there and go ballistic,'' said one staffer). As it turned out, Jackson was quite modulated. After the women's march last week, Eleanor Smeal, director of the Fund for a Feminist Majority, laid down her cards in what one source called ""an extremely frank'' exchange with Stephanopoulos: the president had better come down on their side ""if he wants to keep women's votes.''

Smeal's threat may have been bluster, but at this stage the administration is listening to all comers. Clinton has sought advice from scores of friends, academics and politicians -- even placing a call to Colin Powell to discuss the success of affirmative action in the armed forces. At a four-hour White House dinner last week with scholars and civil-rights leaders, Clinton reflected on his political dilemma. ""This issue has legs,'' he told attendees. ""It won't go away.''

Clinton also told dinner guests he believes that the anti-affirmative-action backlash is fueled by white economic anxiety. To help quell that insecurity, some experts propose basing affirmative action on economic need instead of race and gender. The idea sounds reasonable, but it would be difficult to carry out in practice -- and it would do little to end real racial or sexual discrimination. Other voices are urging Clinton to cut off women and immigrants, making blacks the sole beneficiaries of preferences. This idea, promoted by Northwestern University sociologist Charles Moskos, holds no allure for the White House. Officials say it would combine the worst of both worlds, angering women and other elements of the Democratic base while doing nothing to win back middle-class white men. ""Mr. Moskos has clearly never run for office,'' says one senior adviser.

Clinton's natural impulse on tough issues is to search for a passage between left and right. While the White House review is not yet complete, the president is sending strong signals that he will try to find a ""third way.'' Most affirmative-action programs are likely to stay in place. Over dinner last week, Clinton defended the principle of group remedies for discrimination. But aides hint that he is considering a retreat from ""set aside'' programs, in which the government reserves a portion of its business for minority-or women-owned firms. Aides say he might substitute economic need for race or gender as the criterion for receiving federal contracts.

Some administration officials fear that the third way is no way out of such a volatile issue. One aide talks about Clinton as ""a dead armadillo,'' a reference to Texas populist Jim Hightower's credo that the only things in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos. But Bill Clinton is most comfortable in the middle, and that is where he is likely to stay.