Faye Wattleton

(WOMENSENEWS)–Domestic violence and sexual assault top the list of women’s concerns, coming way ahead of preserving abortion rights, according to a recent poll.

The poll also found growing support for restrictions on abortion rights and decreasing support for affirmative action among white women. At the same time, fewer women are joining organizations concerned with women’s issues.

The findings are part of a wide-ranging poll of3,300 American women by the Center for the Advancement of Women, a New York-based research and advocacy organization led by Faye Wattleton, the former head of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In a report titled “Progress and Perils: New Agenda for Women” released at the end of June, the center compiled the results of two surveys conducted in 2001 and 2003.

Wattleton called the findings on abortion “alarming.” Fewer than half (41 percent) of the women surveyed cited “keeping abortion legal” as a top priority for a women’s movement, whereas 92 percent listed “reducing domestic violence and sexual assault,” with “equal pay for equal work” coming in a close second (90 percent).

The center first reported a slight drop in support for Roe vs. Wade in an earlier survey in 1999. Other pollsters have found similar results.

“What concerns us,” Wattleton says in an interview with Women’s eNews, “is that the trend line continues to go downward.”

About one-third (30 percent) of the women surveyed said abortion should be “generally available.” That was down from 34 percent from a survey conducted in 2001. Another one-third (34 percent), up from 31 percent, said they would restrict abortion to cases of rape, incest or to save a woman’s life. And 17 percent of women surveyed said they would ban it completely–a rise from 14 percent in 2001.

Not surprisingly, the views on abortion have garnered the most attention. Social conservatives trumpeted the news on their web sites, highlighting the fact that it came from Wattleton, a long-time supporter of abortion rights. The conservative newspaper The Washington Times headlined its story on the study:

“Pro-life women shift to majority.” By combining the number of women who would ban abortion with those who would restrict it, the newspaper claimed that a majority of women (51 percent) would either “prohibit abortion or limit it to extreme cases.”

“We could have said all of this is bad news and that we are going to suppress the information,” Wattleton says. “Instead, we chose to release all the data. This is an opinion poll of 3,300 women. It’s not our point of view.”

Frank Newport, the editor and chief of the Gallup Poll, says the study’s findings on abortions are fairly consistent with their polls, which have remained virtually the same over the last quarter century. In the most recent Gallup survey released in May, 25 percent of Americans said abortion should be legal in all circumstances, while 19 percent thought it should be illegal in all circumstances. “That leaves the big hunk of Americans in this gray zone of ambivalence that favor some restrictions,” Newport says in an interview with Women’s eNews.

Anti-choice and pro-choice groups will often combine the numbers on each end of the spectrum with the number of people in the middle to tip the balance in their favor.

“The pro-life people like to say most people want restrictions or to eliminate abortion, while the pro-choice people like to say most people favor abortion with some conditions,” Newport says. “The bottom line is most Americans operate in a zone of ambivalence . . . but the majority do not want to completely do away with abortion.”

Domestic Violence Issue Moves to the Forefront

Wattleton was more surprised by the findings on domestic violence than she was on abortion. “It was the one finding we did not anticipate,” she says.

But for people working on the issue, the news comes as no surprise.

“This is an issue that so many women and girls are dealing with,” says Joy R. Bostic, the executive director of the Alliance: African American Task Force On Violence Against Women, a Harlem-based organization. “When you’re talking about one in four women, you’re talking about a major epidemic.”

“The movement to stop violence against women in the USA has made incredible headway,” says Sheila Dauer, the director of the Women’s Human Rights Program for Amnesty International USA. “There is a lot of awareness among women. Where there hasn’t been as much headway is in turning around our society and culture of violence.”

In March 2004 Dauer will launch Amnesty’s two-year campaign to combat violence against women worldwide. Wattleton says the Center plans to do more research on the issue.

Report Highlights Decline in Affirmative Action Support

Four in 10 women said they had experienced discrimination, but less than 50 percent of white women support affirmative action. Not surprisingly, minority women continue to support such programs more than their white counterparts (71 percent of African Americans and 56 percent of Hispanics).

“Affirmative action has been generally cast in terms of race,” Wattleton says. “I think women themselves are not as cognizant of the role affirmative action has played in opening the doors for women.”

African American women (68 percent) and Latinas (66 percent) also identified more with the label “feminist” than white women (50 percent). And minority women felt more strongly (63 percent of African Americans, 68 percent of Hispanics compared to 41 percent of white women) that the country needs a revitalized movement to benefit women. Most all women agree that a new women’s movement should forge change in the public arena and stay away from trying to change personal behavior. The focus should be on issues such as equal pay, health care and child care.

In their personal lives, women reported that marriage and motherhood were important to them but they did not see them as their only roles. More than 7 out of 10 felt that motherhood was not necessary to have a complete life. And 91 percent felt women could have it all, a successful career and be a good mother.

“That’s a difference,” Wattleton says. “We have evolved in seeing ourselves as more than the traditional way society viewed us.” For women who do want a man in their lives, they say it’s more for love and affection than his paycheck.

Wattleton says the poll also shows that women’s organizations have to do more to get women involved. Only 11 percent of women surveyed in 2003 said they had joined an organization concerned with women’s issues. Wattleton believes that one reason preserving abortion rights is less a priority today is because more women take such rights for granted–especially the generations of women who have always lived with the option of legal abortion. Women surveyed believed by a 2 to 1 margin that the U.S. Supreme Court would not overturn Roe vs. Wade, despite the predictions that there could be a change in the high court.

“The lesson to us is about how important it is to keep women’s issues at a very high profile,” Wattleton says. “Only in doing so will women care and more importantly address policy makers.”

Luchina Fisher is a freelance writer and producer living in the New York area.

For more information:

Center for the Advancement of Women:

Amnesty International’s Women’s Human Rights Program: