Peggy Simpson

Can Feminist Groups and Bloggers Bridge the Digital Divide?

At the least, leaders of national women's rights groups and the founders of fast-growing feminist blog sites gathered in the same room. That in itself was a first. And a major accomplishment, says Shireen Mitchell of Digital Sisters, one of the organizers of the Fem2.0 conference held in early February in Washington, DC.

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Women Ready To Lead in an Obama Administration

Women's groups are moving on many fronts to seek to affect policies and appointments in the upcoming Barack Obama administration.

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Sarah Palin Has Pollsters Scratching Their Heads

The Sarah Surge is unmistakable. GOP presidential nominee John McCain's support rose markedly after he named Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate -- although after two solid weeks of Palin-all-the-time media attention, McCain still hasn't broken 50 percent.

Republicans now are far more fervent backers of McCain, a candidate that the religious right and social conservatives opposed in past races and were lukewarm about in this one. Post-Palin, Republicans' strong backing of McCain nearly has doubled, from 39 percent in July to 71 percent in September, in a Newsweek poll.

Palin also appears to generate a backlash. The Newsweek poll showed that 29 percent of all voters said Palin would make them more likely to vote for McCain but 22 percent said it made them less likely.

It's hard to decipher the path of voters who had strongly backed Hillary Clinton in the primaries.

One widely quoted Clinton activist who had criticized the Democratic Party's treatment of Hillary last summer and had publicly backed McCain now has withdrawn that support. Reba Shimansky said in a statement that "the Palin selection may have energized the GOP base but it hurts him with independents. I would have voted for McCain if he made a sensible choice for VP like Ridge, which would have shown that he was willing to stand up to the rightwing crackpots in his party." Now, she'll sit out the general election.

Some national polls -- notably a Washington Post-ABC survey two weeks ago -- showed a big movement of white women from Obama to McCain. That was not reflected in another national survey by pollsters at the Wall Street Journal/NBC.  The Gallup pollsters entered the fray to say that in their daily overnight tracking polls, they have not detected any major movement by female voters.

Just before the Democratic convention, in Gallup's August 20-22 survey, white women broke 47-40 percent for McCain over Obama. After the unveiling of Palin and her speech to the GOP convention, the support of white women moved up slightly toward McCain, 51-40, in the September 5-8 survey, with no loss in backing for Obama. That resembled the movement by white men for McCain, which went from 56-36 to 59-34 percent in the same time period. The Newsweek poll this weekend showed a bigger bounce for McCain among white women: from 44 to 39 percent in July to 53 to 37 percent in early September.

Only now is Palin becoming known to the general population. She got off-the-chart applause for her convention speech, delivering sarcasm and zingers with a self-confidence she also showed in her first national TV interview with Charles Gibson.

Activists on both sides are the first to respond, knowing her personal views and, to a lesser extent, her record as mayor and as governor. The social conservatives are signing up in droves to volunteer for McCain-Palin. Feminist activists and those on the center-left began donating in record amounts to the Obama-Biden campaign, raising its fundraising take for August to $66 million.

Another insight to the Palin phenomena comes from the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research.

Palin gets higher favorable marks from men than women. Their recent survey shows that 45 percent of men rate her favorably, 31 percent unfavorably. Women hold a 42 percent favorable, 36 percent unfavorable view.

There definitely is a gender breakdown by race and marital status, however.

Married women give Palin a favorable vote by 49 percent, versus 37 percent who don't like her. It's the reverse for women who never married, are divorced or widowed: 32 percent like her, 38 percent don't.

Greenberg Quinlan also finds the same slight movement to McCain of older white women. He leads among white married women, 55-42 percent, and unmarried women back Obama by a narrowing margin, 49-45 percent.

But national tracking polls tell only part of the story. A poll of swing states by Quinnipiac University showed Palin had minimal impact in states where the economy is tough, such as Ohio.  Palin was helping McCain expand his lead in Florida and narrow the margin in Pennsylvania, but Obama was holding his own in Ohio and still leading in Pennsylvania.

And, in Ohio, Palin had a favorability rating of only 41 percent.

Media Downplay Widespread Support for Hillary

The political and media hype about the Kennedy family's anointment of Senator Barack Obama eclipsed the Clinton campaign's boots-on-the-ground organizational work in the 22 states with Democratic primaries on Super Tuesday.

In the end, Hillary Clinton held her own through hard work and an improved message, and continued to court women who rewarded her with a 20-point margin over Obama. She took New York, New Jersey, the prized battleground state of California -- and Massachusetts -- as well as Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Arizona (where Governor Janet Napolitano had endorsed Obama).

Right after her comeback victory in New Hampshire, the Clinton campaign put a priority on getting Californians to vote absentee. More than half of Californians did just that, blunting the Obama momentum of the past week that had cut her lead to nothing. She bought time on Spanish-language broadcast outlets, not just those broadcasting in English.

Clinton emerged from Super Tuesday with a 70-delegate margin over Obama, but primaries coming in the next week will pose new challenges, in Louisiana, Nebraska, Washington, Maine, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Obama increased his credibility and votes with whites, most notably in the South and Midwest. He may have inherited votes of white men from former Senator John Edwards, who dropped out a week ago. Obama took 13 states. And he took every state that held caucuses rather than primaries, reflecting his strength with more liberal Democrats who turn out to caucus.

On election eve, the pundits were back-pedaling somewhat from their predictions days earlier that the Obama endorsement by Senator Edward Kennedy and his niece, Caroline Kennedy, would prove fatal to Clinton -- with union voters, Latinos and in delegate-rich states such as California.

Clinton withstood the Kennedy onslaught. And one of the sweetest victories was the earliest: an upset in Kennedy's home turf of Massachusetts, with women voting for her 62-36. One of her key supporters, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, said his state was "Clinton country" and that the election "was about real people," about the working class.

Clinton won the hotly contested California primary with a huge margin among Hispanics, Asians -- and women. Women voted for her by a commanding 57-39 margin, ignoring appeals last weekend from Oprah Winfrey, Caroline Kennedy and her cousin Maria Shriver to switch to Obama.

Clinton's endorsements from three children of the late Robert Kennedy had been discounted, when noticed at all, by the East Coast media. They wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece that ran soon after Caroline Kennedy's bombshell Obama endorsement that, in essence, deeds count more than poetic words. Former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said she had worked with Clinton for 25 years, as had her two brothers for 15 years, on issues of children and poverty. This may have had resonance with California Latinos.

They stayed hitched to Clinton. They also turned out in record numbers, comprising nearly 30 percent of the California vote, voting 66-33 for Clinton. Hispanic women also voted with Clinton in Obama's home state of Illinois, as well as in other states where they are a significant bloc, such as New Jersey and New Mexico.

Super Tuesday reinforced certain realities. Obama does best with blacks, more affluent and better educated voters and with those under 30. He is doing better with whites than in earlier primaries. Clinton wins with a solid bloc of women voters, a better than 2-1 margin among Hispanics, an even larger one among Asian voters and a major edge among older voters.

That doesn't tell the full story. Women are turning out in record numbers and have averaged 58 percent of Democratic primary voters. Young voters are not. Their turnout Tuesday ranged from 8 percent in New Mexico to 16 percent in California but the average was about 12 percent -- not much more than their historic average. The Iowa caucus surge of young voters has not been replicated elsewhere.

More pertinent is the fact that Obama's clout with young voters is eclipsed by Clinton's strength with voters 60 and over, who form a core chunk of the Democratic electorate. They constituted 30 percent of the voters in New York and Massachusetts, 36 percent in New Mexico, 28 percent in California and 32 percent in Missouri.

The outside noise of a severely distressed economy may affect the coming votes. Clinton's wonkish speeches on specific economic programs may kick in here to provide a more secure basis of support than had been thought. That is partly because she is spelling out relief plans for homeowners who risk losing their homes in the subprime mortgage crisis. When she talks about reform of the health care system, she talks about providing relief to small business owners who face huge and escalating health care costs for their workers.

And Clinton may be getting more comfortable with finding a more lyrical way of talking about what she wants to do. She'll never match Obama in his soaring rhetoric about hope.

But, in her election-night speech, she said she'd work for "people on the day shift, the night shift, the late shift with the crying baby" and for "all those who aren't in the headlines but have always written America's story."

Iowa Voters Reject Front-Runners

A come-from-behind victory can be a potent propellant in politics. That may be the case for Senator Barack Obama, whose strong win in the Iowa caucuses may translate into strong momentum for the New Hampshire primary in four days. It may be more difficult for the Republican winner.

Obama's team succeeded in bringing in tens of thousands of young people and independents who helped double the turnout in the Iowa Democratic caucuses compared to four years ago.

Senator Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for much of 2007, suffered the consequences of that status. Opponents turned the heat on her in debates, political advertising and endorsements. She is the inevitable nominee no more.

Both Obama and Clinton have found their political footing in the past year under the klieg lights, breaking records as the first mainstream black and female candidates in U.S. history. The election of either would mark a dramatic break with the past.

But the Iowa caucuses showed that, at least in the opening vote, Obama corralled the "change" vote. Polls showed the Democrats put a priority on change versus experience by a 52-20 edge and Obama benefited from that. He managed to paint Clinton as a candidate tied to the past, to the Democratic establishment, while portraying himself as a change agent for the future.

Obama gave an inspirational victory speech, talking of barriers already broken in Iowa and challenging New Hampshire voters to carry on the momentum. Clinton, who came in third with 29 percent to Obama's 38 percent of caucus votes, was low-key but steady, losing in the charisma campaign to the euphoric Obama. She put the focus on the general election -- on Democrats choosing someone who is electable and can lead with experience from day one.

Obama not only commanded the under-35 voters, he also won among Iowa women in general by a 35-30 edge, according to polls of Iowans as they entered the caucuses. Clinton led Obama in the category of voters 45 and older. The polls showed that Iowans felt that the economy and the Iraq war were most important, at 35 percent each, followed by health care, at 27 percent.

Obama and Clinton are flush with campaign money, more than enough to fuel their head-to-head combat in coming primaries. Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who came in slightly ahead of Clinton, is in far more perilous financial condition.

The situation is dramatically different in the Republican ranks.

Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee also scored big as a giant-killer, surging from single-digit support two months ago to clobber onetime Iowa front-runner Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts. But Romney still has plenty of money and is a known quantity in New Hampshire. Huckabee was outspent 15-1 by Romney in Iowa and has run a shoestring campaign nationally, both in terms of funding and political structures. He has to parlay his Iowa victory into new infusions of money and talent.

That is not a given. It isn't clear how his Iowa mandate will translate in other states. Sixty percent of Huckabee's Iowa vote came from evangelicals, a tribute to Huckabee's folksy manner and conservative views honed as a Baptist minister before he went into politics. There are few evangelicals in New Hampshire.

What's more, in recent weeks, Huckabee has morphed into an economic populist, anathema to a core part of the Republican Party and putting him at odds with New Hampshire's fiscal and foreign-policy conservatives who hold dear an anti-tax, small-government platform.

The stunning Iowa results raise questions that will play out in coming primaries:

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Looking to Congress for Justice on Wage Bias and Gender Discrimination

Key congressional Democrats plan to take up the challenge by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to overturn what she called the court's "parsimonious reading" of civil rights laws banning wage discrimination.

In a 5-4 opinion written by the newest justice, Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court said that Lilly Ledbetter, a supervisor at a Goodyear tire factory in Alabama, waited too long to claim wage discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She would have had to file suit within 180 days of Goodyear's first discriminatory paycheck.

Ledbetter began work at Goodyear's Gadsen's plant in 1979, the only female among 16 area supervisors, with pay similar to those of her male peers. Years later, she found out it had slipped dramatically. Her pay was as much as 40 percent below that of the men when she left in 1998. She made $48,000 a year, $6,500 less than the lowest paid male supervisor.

She filed a discrimination lawsuit, got support from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and won a $3.8 million award from a jury. A judge reduced that to $360,000. And the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the case, saying Ledbetter had missed the 180-day deadlines for filing suit after discrimination occurs.

In ruling against Ledbetter, the Supreme Court threw out decades of established legal principles -- and appeared to ignore a 1991 law of Congress as well. If left to stand, the Alito opinion could cast doubt on thousands of pending wage discrimination lawsuits.

In an unusual move, Ginsburg read aloud the minority opinion. "In our view, the court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination." She noted that "pay disparities often occur, as they did in Ledbetter's case, in small increments; only over time is there strong cause to suspect that discrimination is at work."

Ending her dissent, she said, "once again, the ball is in Congress' court."

Business groups generally applauded the Alito decision, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce saying it "eliminates a potential windfall against employers by employees trying to dredge up stale pay claims."

Civil rights groups and Democratic congressional leaders attacked the ruling as a dangerous setback to civil rights -- and set about drafting a proposal to reiterate congressional intent about Title VII's remedy for systemic wage inequities.

Lead sponsors include the two chairs of the committees with jurisdiction over employment discrimination, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Representative George Miller of California, as well as Senators Tom Harkin of Iowa, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and House members Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia.

Stanford law professor Richard Thompson Ford, writing in Slate.com, said the Ledbetter decision "basically grandfathers in longtime pay discrimination" and would tell employers to "hide your misdeed for six months and you're not only off the hook, you get to keep cheating."

The challenge now goes to Congress. "Where the Supreme Court interprets a statue incorrectly, Congress can correct it," says Marcia Greenberger, co-director of the National Women's Law Center.

Three decades ago, the late Justice William Rehnquist wrote the opinion upholding the right of employers to deny medical benefits to women who were pregnant. If men could get pregnant, Rehnquist said, they, too, would be denied medical benefits -- so there's no workplace discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Congress responded by enacting the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, requiring employers who offered medical benefits to give unpaid leave to pregnant women.

Congress also enacted the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987 and the Civil Rights Act of 1991, Greenberger said, in both cases "clarifying" congressional intent on Title IX and other civil rights measures.

Justice Ginsburg in Dissent

In Ledbetter v. Goodyear, Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissent joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, and Stephen Breyer. As she did in the recent late-term abortion ruling, Ginsburg read the dissent aloud from the bench May 29, a very unusual step for her and one that New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse described as "an act of theater that justices use to convey their view that the majority is not only mistaken, but profoundly wrong." Justice Ginsburg said from the bench: "Title VII was meant to govern real-world employment practices, and that world is what the court today ignores."

Below are excerpts of her dissent (with citations and footnotes removed):

[Lilly] Ledbetter launched charges of discrimination before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in March 1998 ... In accord with [a] jury's liability determination, the District Court entered judgment for Ledbetter for backpay and damages, plus counsel fees and costs.

The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed ... Any annual pay decision not contested immediately (within 180 days), the [Supreme] Court affirms, becomes grandfathered, a fait accompli beyond the province of Title VII ever to repair.

The Court's insistence on immediate contest overlooks common characteristics of pay discrimination. Pay disparities often occur, as they did in Ledbetter's case, in small increments; cause to suspect that discrimination is at work develops only over time. Comparative pay information, moreover, is often hidden from the employee's view ... Small initial discrepancies may not be seen as meet for a federal case, particularly when the employee, trying to succeed in a nontraditional environment, is averse to making waves.

Pay disparities are thus significantly different from adverse actions "such as termination, failure to promote, ... or refusal to hire," all involving fully communicated discrete acts, "easy to identify" as discriminatory. It is only when the disparity becomes apparent and sizable, e.g., through future raises calculated as a percentage of current salaries, that an employee in Ledbetter's situation is likely to comprehend her plight and, therefore, to complain. Her initial readiness to give her employer the benefit of the doubt should not preclude her from later challenging the then current and continuing payment of a wage depressed on account of her sex. ...

Tellingly, as the record in this case bears out, Goodyear kept salaries confidential; employees had only limited access to information regarding their colleagues' earnings.

The problem of concealed pay discrimination is particularly acute where the disparity arises not because the female employee is flatly denied a raise but because male counterparts are given larger raises. Having received a pay increase, the female employee is unlikely to discern at once that she has experienced an adverse employment decision ... Even if an employee suspects that the reason for a comparatively low raise is not performance but sex (or another protected ground), the amount involved may seem too small, or the employer's intent too ambiguous, to make the issue immediately actionable -- or winnable. ...

The Court asserts that treating pay discrimination as a discrete act, limited to each particular pay-setting decision, is necessary to "protec[t] employers from the burden of defending claims arising from employment decisions that are long past." But the discrimination of which Ledbetter complained is not long past. As she alleged, and as the jury found, Goodyear continued to treat Ledbetter differently because of sex each pay period, with mounting harm. ...

To show how far the Court has strayed from interpretation of Title VII with fidelity to the Act's core purpose, I return to the evidence Ledbetter presented at trial. ...

Specifically, Ledbetter's evidence demonstrated that her current pay was discriminatorily low due to a long series of decisions reflecting Goodyear's pervasive discrimination against women managers in general and Ledbetter in particular. Ledbetter's former supervisor, for example, admitted to the jury that Ledbetter's pay, during a particular one-year period, fell below Goodyear's minimum threshold for her position. Although Good-year claimed the pay disparity was due to poor performance, the supervisor acknowledged that Ledbetter received a "Top Performance Award" in 1996. The jury also heard testimony that another supervisor -- who evaluated Ledbetter in 1997 and whose evaluation led to her most recent raise denial -- was openly biased against women. And two women who had previously worked as managers at the plant told the jury they had been subject to pervasive discrimination and were paid less than their male counterparts. One was paid less than the men she supervised. Ledbetter herself testified about the discriminatory animus conveyed to her by plant officials. Toward the end of her career, for instance, the plant manager told Ledbetter that the "plant did not need women, that [women] didn't help it, [and] caused problems." After weighing all the evidence, the jury found for Ledbetter, concluding that the pay disparity was due to intentional discrimination.

Yet, under the Court's decision, the discrimination Ledbetter proved is not redressable under Title VII. Each and every pay decision she did not immediately challenge wiped the slate clean. Consideration may not be given to the cumulative effect of a series of decisions that, together, set her pay well below that of every male area manager. Knowingly carrying past pay discrimination forward must be treated as lawful conduct. ... The Court's approbation of these consequences is totally at odds with the robust protection against workplace discrimination Congress intended Title VII to secure.

This is not the first time the Court has ordered a cramped interpretation of Title VII, incompatible with the statute's broad remedial purpose. Once again, the ball is in Congress' court. As in 1991, the Legislature may act to correct this Court's parsimonious reading of Title VII.

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