Feminist Groups Prepare to Back Obama

Editors' Note: This piece has been updated.

Ten days after Sen. Hillary Clinton conceded the Democratic nomination for president and endorsed Sen. Barack Obama, the National Organization of Women's Web site contained nary a mention of the presumptive Democratic nominee.

"Make History with Hillary!" exulted the now irrelevant banner across the top of NOW's political action page. "Count Florida's Votes," directed another dated headline hawking an old Clinton talking point.

Though some national women's organizations are shifting slowly from primary to general election mode -- or appear not to have shifted at all -- behind the scenes, many of the major players of institutional feminism are preparing to line up behind Obama. The movement's actions, not to mention recent polling of female voters, should put to rest endless rounds of media speculation about whether feminist Clinton voters, particularly older white women, will defect en masse to the Republican Party.

According to NOW President Kim Gandy, the organization's PAC is engaged in "a very extensive internal consultative process" to determine whether to officially endorse Obama after endorsing Clinton in the primary. It is unlikely to be resolved before NOW's national conference, which will take place in Bethesda, Md. July 18-20, but Gandy said the group is already planning media strategies for attacking John McCain.

"Certainly, we have many friends and allies who are supporting the [Obama] campaign who have reached out to us," Gandy told the Prospect. "Historically we have not been very involved in terms of endorsements. Clinton was our fourth ever presidential endorsement in 40 years. But this certainly is a very critical year." (The other presidential candidates endorsed by NOW include two other women who didn't make it past the primaries -- Shirley Chisholm in 1972 and Carol Moseley Braun in 2004 -- as well as Walter Mondale in 1984, who appointed the first female vice presidential nominee to a major party ticket, Geraldine Ferraro.)

Meanwhile, other organizations are beginning a media push to define McCain as anti-Roe v. Wade and anti-equal pay for women. Planned Parenthood will spend $10 million on such efforts, focusing on viral videos like this one, which calls attention to McCain's Senate vote against requiring insurance companies to cover birth control. Last Thursday, MomsRising, an Internet-based group, protested McCain's opposition to the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in front of the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington. When voting against the bill in April, McCain stated that women needed "training and education" more than they needed the right to bring pay discrimination law suits. The protesters delivered "overqualified" women's resumes to McCain's office.

Also last week, feminist leaders including Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and EMILY's List founder Ellen Malcolm, both of whom had endorsed Clinton, held a conference call with reporters to discuss the need for Clinton voters to shift their allegiance to Obama.

The call was significant because Malcom had been accused by some Obama supporters of riling anti-Obama discontent in the Clinton camp. During the primary, Malcolm contended that because of seven "present" votes, Obama had been weak on choice issues while a member of the Illinois State Senate. (In fact, Obama defended choice many times as a state senator.) And when NARAL Pro-Choice America became the first major feminist organization to endorse Obama on May 14, Malcolm called the move "tremendously disrespectful to Sen. Clinton, who held up the nomination of an FDA commissioner in order to force approval of Plan B and who spoke so eloquently during the Supreme Court nomination hearings about the importance of protecting Roe vs. Wade."

That kind of rhetoric, in which Clinton surrogates cast aspersions on the feminist credibility of Obama supporters, renewed debates over the role of race in feminism. There was no question that many grassroots supporters of the Second Wave women's groups -- and of Clinton's campaign -- were not as excited by the idea of the first black president as they were by the prospect of putting a woman into the Oval Office.

"Some of these women have been involved in advocating for women's rights for 35 to 40 years," Gandy said of NOW grassroots members. "They are suffering an actual loss. Imagine that you've dreamed about something your whole life and on one day it's been dashed. And the next day, you're told to hope that dream for someone else."

Even NARAL political director Elizabeth Shipp, who is already planning an elaborate pro-Obama get-out-the-vote strategy, advocates giving die-hard pro-Clinton women some breathing room. "Right now they just need people to leave them alone," Shipp told the Prospect. "They need to get over the loss in their own way and in their own time. Then they will vote against John McCain and they will vote for Barack Obama."

So far, the evidence suggests that is true. A Gallup poll conducted between June 5 and 9 found Obama leading McCain 51-38 among all women. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, Obama leads 46-39 among white women, a swing demographic that supported George W. Bush over John Kerry by nine points in 2004. And a NARAL poll released yesterday found Obama gains 13 points among pro-choice Independent women and nine points among pro-choice Republican women when they learn that McCain opposes Roe.

As the campaign progresses, feminist organizations will not only attempt to increase Obama's lead over McCain, but will focus heavily on their longtime goals of registering women voters and getting them to the polls. NOW will spend several hundred thousand dollars reaching out to its members. NARAL has a $10 million budget for targeting pro-choice Republican and Independent women.

Perhaps the biggest drive to get women to the polls in 2008 is being conducted by Women's Voices, Women Vote. The group, which does not endorse candidates, was founded in 2004 to target unmarried women of all ages, one of the most progressive demographics in America. Unmarried women are 9 percent less likely to register to vote than other Americans, and 13 percent less likely to go to the polls.

Research shows that unmarried women find voting inconvenient; many of them are low-income single parents. That's why WVWV sends voter registration packets straight to women's homes and encourages them to participate in early mail-in balloting, the group's president, Page Gardner, told the Prospect. WVWV has registered 530,000 voters thus far this election season and has a target of registering 1 million before November 4. But in the run-up to the May 6 North Carolina primary, WVWV came under fire for a series of robocalls and mailed registration packets that some Obama supporters interpreted as attempts to suppress the African American vote and give Clinton a boost. The robocalls failed to identify Women's Voices, Women Vote as the sponsoring organization, as required by law. And the group's voter registration packets sometimes arrived after primary election registration cut-offs. That confused some voters and led to a small number double-registering, which in some states could have caused them to be ineligible at the primary polls.

Considering that controversy, it's not surprising that Gardner sat down to an interview with the Prospect alongside a public relations handler, Ira Arlook, a managing director at progressive communications firm Fenton Media. Gardner said her organization's strategy had been misunderstood as a primary-focused effort when in fact, the goal was to use excitement generated by the primary process to encourage eligible women to register for the general election. Research does show that voter registration increases dramatically around and just after deadlines. And in fact, WVWV registered 26,000 voters in North Carolina between February and April, approximately 57 percent of whom were African American

"Look, when you're registering a million voters, you get noticed," Gardner said by way of explaining the scrutiny her group has attracted. "We're actually creating a tremendous amount of work for Secretary of State offices." In response to questions about the legality and propriety of its robocalls and mailings, WVWV has hired attorneys to re-vet their documents and make sure no mailings are sent out during primary registration windows, Gardner said. The group is focusing on 24 states, including the swing states of Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Virginia -- notably, the group will not be working again in North Carolina this year.

In addition to mailings, WVWV will be airing television and radio public service announcements. Their slick TV ads feature female veterans in one spot and celebrities, including Julia Louis Dreyfus, in others. The key message, which has been focus group tested, is "this whole notion of taking part in a democracy and having a voice," Gardner said.

Still, more traditional women's get-out-the-vote efforts, such as NARAL's, remain focused on single-issue politics. "At the end of the day, our issue -- choice -- is the one that cuts through, frankly, all the other crap that happens in an election season," Shipp said. "The one issue where voters can make a clear and consistent choice very quickly is on the issue of abortion."

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