In the fight to save affirmative action, the women of America may be the defenders' not-so-secret weapon. But critics scoff at the idea, saying that women - as much as men - oppose racial or gender preferences in education, employment or government contracting.
To use women in the fight, supporters of affirmative action have worked to shift the debate away from divisive racial issues and instead link affirmative action to the gains women have made in the workplace in the past 30 years.
“Affirmative action has enabled wives and daughters and mothers and girlfriends to compete in the workplace,” says Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, “and that has helped entire families, including the white males in those families.”
But critics of affirmative action say women's gains have come from other factors besides affirmative action. “The combination of anti- discrimination laws and the growing number of women seeking opportunities in the work force has produced very impressive gains,” says Clint Bolick, vice president of the conservative Institute for Justice. “Preference policies have very little to do with increased opportunities for women.”
The most recent scholarly examination of the issue casts doubt on the claim that affirmative action has been a major factor in increasing women's opportunities. Jonathan S. Leonard, an economist at the University of California-Berkeley, studied work-force statistics from the late 1970s - when federal affirmative action requirements were most vigorously enforced - and found that women made only slightly greater gains among federal contractors subject to those policies than among other companies. “[A]ffirmative action has contributed negligibly to women's progress in the workplace,” Leonard concluded.
Still, women's rights activists have warned that the gains women have made will be at risk if affirmative action is dismantled. “If it's defeated, the gains for women would slide,” says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority. “Certainly the progress forward that we need desperately to break the glass ceiling would stop.”
Last month, women's rights activists took to the streets, demonstrating in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles with placards proclaiming “No Retreat on Affirmative Action.” The protest was particularly relevant in California, where opponents of a proposed statewide ballot initiative to outlaw racial or gender preferences in public education, employment and contracting are counting on winning a majority of votes from white women.
Supporters of the initiative, however, say early polls indicate that it will win a majority of votes from women as well as men. And in Washington, Bolick says polls show “virtually no gender gap between men and women in terms of opposition to preference programs.”
Indeed, polls do suggest that men and women alike oppose outright racial or gender preferences. In a Los Angeles Times poll released last month, substantial majorities of white men and white women said they do not favor giving preferences to minorities or women over equally qualified whites or men.
On the other hand, the poll did show a gender gap when people were asked about “affirmative action programs” rather than preferences. Most white women supported affirmative action programs for minorities (54 percent) or for women (66 percent), while white men rejected affirmative action programs for minorities (35 percent favored them vs. 47 percent opposed) and only narrowly favored affirmative action programs for women (45 percent to 41 percent).
Bolick dismisses fears that women will be hurt by changing or scrapping affirmative action programs. “I don't think there will be any perceptible changes in opportunities for women,” he says.
But supporters argue that critics are distorting the debate by ignoring the impact of affirmative action on women. “They're fearful that if they wake the sleeping giant of women voters, they will be defeated,” says Smeal.