Is Primary Season Good for Feminism?


For liberals and progressives, the presidential primary season of 2008 is a breathtaking moment. Historic "firsts" are represented by the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama; add in John Edwards and you have a race contested by three figures, each of whom depicts in an iconic way one of three core ideals that define the traditional liberal coalition in the Democratic Party: women's rights, civil rights and economic populism. Each of these candidates, of course, represents a far wider range of policy positions than that suggested by her or his iconographic status. Consequently, in a moment of great opportunity and challenge for the women's movement, all have drawn high-visibility feminists to their campaigns.

If feminism is a group activity, in Washington, D.C., it is doubly so. Despite competing egos and occasional differences in approach, Washington feminists are used to collaborating on causes ranging from access to birth control to the plight of women in Afghanistan. But many of the same women now find themselves on opposing fronts in the Democratic primary wars. It's a situation fraught with both promise and tension, particularly as one of the main contenders embodies in her very person women's highest political aspirations. As the competition grows in intensity, loyalties, not to mention civilities, are sure to be tested.

Last month, a handful of feminist advisers to the presidential campaigns participated in a panel discussion at the Democratic National Committee Leadership meeting that included Ann Lewis of the Clinton campaign, Karen Mulhauser of Obama's campaign, Kate Michelman backing Edwards, and Martha Burk, then adviser to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who has since dropped out of the race. There the group agreed to unite behind a single candidate after a nominee emerges from the primary season. Asked if panel members seemed friendly, Michelman first said yes, but then added, "I think there's always a little tension when you're obviously competing." And indeed, since then they've been fielding something a little harder than beanballs.

In the weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses, the Clinton and Obama campaigns entered into a tussle over Obama's reproductive-rights voting record in the Illinois State Legislature. Discovering that Obama had cast seven votes on reproductive rights issues that were neither "aye" nor "nay" but simply "present," Clinton advisers found an issue to flog. Pam Sutherland of the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council told the New York Times that in casting those votes, Obama was simply following a strategy advanced by the state's pro-choice groups. Rather than let go of the issue, however, the Clinton campaign carried the attack to New Hampshire, first, as reported by TAPPED's Dana Goldstein, with a mailed flyer, and then with a day-before-the-primary email to supporters criticizing Obama's "present" votes. Obama's campaign rebutted the charges in automated recorded phone messages -- known as robo-calls -- saying Clinton was using smear tactics. To this, the Clinton side cried foul, citing a campaign law about such calls. (Turns out the rule invoked, on how and when such calls must identify the caller, doesn't apply to primaries.)

"I do not care what strategy you think you're employing," Clinton volunteer Melody Drnach told me in Manchester, New Hampshire, on the day of the primary. "When it comes time to make a vote for women's reproductive rights, 'present' is not change," insisted Drnach, who is action vice president for the National Organization for Women, whose political action committee endorsed Clinton last spring. "'Present' just means I'm sitting here today, but I have no opinion." Talking to me also that day, from outside a polling station in Nashua, Karen Mulhauser said, "I actually find it shocking that they're using this as a campaign issue" after having heard from Illinois pro-choice movement leaders that her candidate "got it right." Susan Turnbull, vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, was remaining neutral in the choice skirmish: "I think there is no question that our candidates [Obama and Clinton] are fully pro-choice and will both appoint judges who are pro-choice and both will lead on that issue."

John Edwards' response to Clinton's "emotional" moment in a New Hampshire coffee shop -- when he said what the country needs from a "commander-in-chief is strength and resolve" -- caused more conflict, especially his inference that Hillary Clinton might not be "tough" enough. "[Republican candidate] Mitt Romney, as I recall, got misty-eyed, and everybody thought, isn't that wonderful, he really cares," the Clinton campaign's Ann Lewis told me in Manchester on primary day. "And if a woman gets misty-eyed, John Edwards says, a commander-in-chief has got to be tough."

"We are tripping all over ourselves and we will learn a lot," said Kate Michelman of the Edwards campaign, whom I reached at her Washington, D.C. home on Saturday. "And sometimes, these lessons are painful ... I will be honest, I was pained by what John Edwards' immediate response was...."

While Edwards stood accused of sexist opportunism, Hillary Clinton has recently been accused of racial insensitivity in remarks that she and her advisers have made about several topics, including the victories of the civil rights movement. A comment by Bill Clinton -- that Obama's campaign story of early and sustained opposition to the Iraq war was a fairy tale -- saddened Democratic commentator Donna Brazile. "As an African-American," she said, "I find his words and his tone to be very depressing." Over the weekend, Hillary Clinton said she was "personally offended" by the way her comments about Martin Luther King Jr. had been portrayed. She accused the Obama campaign of being divisive.

Fault lines also appear generationally, with some younger feminists expressing opposition to the notion of making Hillary Clinton's gender a primary consideration when choosing which candidate to back. And on it goes.

Because the party's various constituencies are reflected in the very appearance of the top candidates, the moment is rich with promise as well as fraught with the danger of division. "We're at a moment of change: generational change, social change, and even in the way we look at social change, and what has to come after this," Michelman observed.

Each of the women interviewed for this piece said they chose their candidate based on their own feminist values. Michelman, who led NARAL for nearly 20 years, based her decision to sign on with Edwards on his approach to economic issues and his mission to eliminate poverty. To Michelman, who, as a young woman, found herself living on welfare as a single mother, those issues "are the most critical that women face -- the next leg of our journey to full social, economic and political equality."

For Mulhauser, who served as NARAL's executive director in its formative years, her decision to work as a senior adviser to Barack Obama's campaign reflected her comfort with what she sees as his approach to abortion politics compared to that of Hillary Clinton. "He talks about unintended pregnancy as being a problem," Mulhauser said. "Hillary talks about abortion as being a problem and as something that's tragic, and I don't like to think about abortion that way."

Martha Burk, former chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, chose to work for Bill Richardson. "Vis-à-vis Richardson and Clinton," she said, "I thought Richardson was more progressive on a number of the issues, paid family leave being one." But now that Richardson is out of the race, Burk said, there's no question about her next candidate. "I am going to campaign for Hillary Clinton. And yes, in my lifetime, I want to see a woman elected [president]. It's a perfectly legitimate reason to vote for somebody, if you also can believe in what they stand for," she said by phone from her New Mexico home. "I just think it's remarkable that we have gotten to where we have with the campaigns appreciating the feminist point of view."

Ann Lewis, who served as Planned Parenthood's communications chief prior to becoming communications director for the Clinton White House in 1995, would like to see her candidate get a little credit for bringing women's issues into the mainstream debates. "It used to be that the presidential campaigns were about the 'hard' issues -- you know, how tough can you be, how many troops will you have, how hard are you going to fight," Lewis said. "And now we see candidates talking about, 'Can we make a difference in people's lives?' That used to be what you talked about with women, but not with men in the room."

Women have long comprised the majority of voters, Lewis said. "But this is the year in which that has become explicit. You now see article after article saying that women are 54 percent" of the electorate. "Politics is supposedly about the bottom line," she explained. "But this focus and competition for women voters has really burst forth recently, and, and I would think, not coincidentally around Hillary's campaign."

Given the rough-and-tumble nature of primary season politics, it will take some fortitude among feminists to keep our eyes on the prize, and not let the contest override the context. With Obama and Clinton each having won historic victories so far, the contest could last longer than was previously expected. Mulhauser concedes that the gloves have come off. But, she stated, when it's all said and done, "I'd like to think we're all going to behave in ways that are inclusive."

Michelman, too, is eager to help create a feminist presidency for the eventual Democratic nominee. "I would hope that we are going to emerge with a much greater sensibility about how to take the best of each of the elements" of the campaign -- the issues of economics and gender and race -- "and harmonize, integrate them, whether it's Hillary, whether it's Obama, whether it's Edwards. Those are all important ingredients in the feminist vision. I would love to work to bring all these dimensions together and to help shape a [general election] candidacy that doesn't lose these dynamic ideals that are represented."

Martha Burk has no fear of any lasting division. "When you look at the issues that are prominent in the campaign and in the national agenda right now, like more funding for women on Medicaid, like what has happened to the price of birth control on college campuses or Social Security benefits, these sorts of things are core to the feminist agenda and we're united."

Burk says early on, a member of Hillary Clinton's campaign staff called, "asking me if I would consider working for the Clinton campaign. And I said, 'No, I'm already signed on for Governor Richardson.' She was very gracious. Her answer was -- and I've repeated it a number of times throughout the primary season -- 'Well, that's okay, because by this time next year, one of us will be working for the other.'"

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