What young women miss when they opt out of the political process

At a recent gathering of the San Jose branch of the American Association of University Women, more than 100 people listened raptly to Lisa Maatz's tale of her great grammar-school-bathroom-door revolt in the 1970s. Maatz, AAUW's director of public policy, was 8 years old at the time, and she tells the story as an object lesson about the power of grass-roots activism.

It goes like this: In Maatz's school in her small Ohio town, there were no doors on the stalls in the girls' bathroom. This was quite distressing to her and all her third-grade friends. Maatz approached the school principal, Mr. Ginke, to implore that the girls' room get bathroom doors just as the boys' room had.

"Mr. Ginke basically patted me on the head and told me not to worry about it," Maatz said as many in the audience shook their heads in a knowing fashion.

So, the next day Maatz started a petition. Soon she had 200 signatures, including the names of many boys who discovered that it was cool to sign it. The petition turned into a movement, and two weeks later the stalls in the girls' room had doors.

It's an accessible little tale of triumph and political awakening. And Maatz went on to discuss AAUW-backed policy victories in Washington - including the passage of Title IX, guaranteeing women's equality in education - which were accomplished in much the same way. (The AAUW is non-partisan and doesn't endorse candidates.)

I only wish that each woman in that room had been accompanied by one of the millions of women who don't vote. They are the ones who really need to hear this message.

By now, we've all heard about the bloc of more than 20 million single women in the country who don't vote and could have the power to sway an election if they did. When I've spoken to some of these women over the past four years, most say they don't vote because they don't think it makes a difference.

There is a degree of fatalism and pessimism among these women that is not only disturbing, it's just wrong-headed. Neglecting to cast a ballot is especially self-defeating for this group because many are single mothers who don't have enough health insurance or are workers who are paid less than their male counterparts. They have a lot to lose - or gain.

If any of them had listened to Maatz's talk, perhaps they would have had a clearer understanding of how their vote does indeed matter. The San Jose branch of the AAUW sponsors "woman-to-woman" voter turnout drives, pegged to specific issues on the ballot. But I suggested to branch coordinator Gloria Leonard that perhaps just getting non-voters to vote is an issue in itself.

"We do set up phone banks before elections and contact people who haven't voted in a long time," Leonard told me. "We'll ask what they need to help them out. Do they need a ride to the polls? We've found that reaching out this way, personally, often does make a difference."

The next time the AAUW branches bring Maatz in for one of her popular speaking tours, it would be great if they could set up those phone banks in advance and issue personal invitations to women who have stayed away from the polls.

If the non-voting women have been turned off by public policy debates, maybe they will be inspired if they can learn about it in a more intimate setting - starting with the triumphal lobbying of Mr. Ginke in the battle of the bathroom-stall doors.



Sue Hutchison is a columnist for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News. Readers may send her e-mail at