NOW What?

When Carol Moseley Braun made her formal announcement on Sept. 22 that she was running for president, newspaper stories on the senator-turned-ambassador ran with a paragraph reminding readers that the announcement came on the heels of twin endorsements by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Women's Political Caucus. The news of that support hit with such a soft impact -- the aforementioned paragraph usually appeared well down in the piece -- that it went all but unnoticed. The only major headline about NOW's endorsement ran on the editorial page of The New York Times, which chastised the "feminist outpost" for its "silly" choice of a "vanity" candidate. Kim Gandy, president of NOW, slammed the Times for "trivializing ... women and our concerns."

But some in the women's movement are wondering whether it wasn't NOW that was trivializing women's concerns. That the organization chose Moseley Braun as only its second endorsee in its 37-year history forces some tough questions about the logic of endorsing a candidate who clearly will not win the nomination. It also warrants some tough comparisons -- to the organization's last presidential endorsement, Walter Mondale in the 1984 election, and to NOW's sister organizations, namely Emily's List, that have developed a more sophisticated approach to politics in the nearly 20 years since a woman last had a slot on a party's presidential ticket.

When NOW's political action committee declared support for Moseley Braun on August 26, it baffled many feminists, progressives and just plain old Democrats. Moseley Braun is an intelligent and well-spoken former politician who certainly doesn't lack for charisma. But her one-term tenure in the U.S. Senate was marked by questionable ethical judgments. More than that, her candidacy strikes many as half-hearted and gestural: Moseley Braun may appear to be a full-time candidate because she has participated in all of the televised debates, but in fact she has been conducting more of a speaking tour than a full-fledged campaign. She has appeared in key states like Iowa just five times and raised a meager $217,109. So many saw NOW's endorsement of her as, at best, an empty gesture.

It was not, however, "silly," as the Times editorial claimed. "Silly" implies "girlish," which immediately raises hackles and throws the context of the endorsement into a false binary: women versus the establishment. (Feminist leaders who were quick to dismiss the endorsement were nevertheless angry about the tone of the Times editorial.) NOW's endorsement wasn't silly at all. As Gandy pointed out in an interview, "When Carol is at the table, women's issues are talked about, and when she's not, they're not." Symbolically, having a woman onstage at the debates next to nine men is clearly important: Her presence highlights both the issues dear to American women as well as the painful lack of women who have risked the run for the top tier of politics in this country.

But is this the right time for acts of symbolism? The 2004 presidential election is the first of the post-Ralph Nader era, and the whole of progressive Washington is desperate to do everything possible to remove George W. Bush from office. The private consensus among activists is that there isn't room to throw support to candidates who aren't really running serious campaigns.

"I think people mostly just shrugged and said, 'What were they thinking?'" says one longtime activist who refused to be named. "Because whatever argument people might want to make about a symbolic endorsement, this is not the time for that."

NOW had it right the first time. In 1983, women were feeling bruised after three years under Ronald Reagan. A handful of influential feminists -- including Kathy Bonk, then communications director for NOW -- were part of the effort to get a woman on the Democratic ticket. Armed with information about a new phenomenon called the voting "gender gap," which showed that women were consistently voting more Democratic than men, women's groups and Democrats were convinced that women would provide a winning margin of error to the party's presidential candidate.

Walter Mondale, Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson all competed for NOW's endorsement. Though the organization's board was torn over whether to endorse Mondale or Jackson, the issue came down to viability. Then-President Judy Goldsmith said at the time that NOW "felt it essential to make the strongest possible statement for the one candidate we felt could, indeed, do the best for women and defeat Ronald Reagan." Stories ran in papers around the country about this "most influential" women's organization and its helpful endorsement.

The endorsement wasn't helpful enough, of course, and Mondale wasn't that viable after all. And though more women than men voted Democratic, Reagan still carried the women's vote overall. Though Geraldine Ferraro made it onto the ticket, as a politician she wasn't ready to be in the VP slot. The difficulty was, there weren't many women to choose from: There were no women governors, no woman who had been elected to the Senate in her own right and only a handful of female House members.

The problem of the pipeline was addressed the following year with the founding of Emily's List. Born to ensure, implicitly if not explicitly, that there would never again be a moment when the search for a woman candidate would be so embarrassingly difficult, Emily's List was an almost instant success. By the 2000 election cycle, it had given more than $20 million to candidates -- compared with the slightly more than $200,000 ponied up by NOW's political action committee. In the 18 years since its founding, the organization is credited for helping elect seven governors, 55 House members and 11 senators. Though Emily's List was chastised in 2002 for challenging incumbent Democrats, the group remains a genuine force, both in raising women's issues and in getting candidates elected. It may be controversial at times, but it's never ignored.

One of the criteria for receiving an Emily's List endorsement? Viability -- women are turned down when they don't have a shot. Says longtime Democratic strategist Donna Brazile about the decision to back Moseley Braun, "I understand why NOW and the [National] Women's Political Caucus wanted to make a statement. On the other hand, when you decide to run for office, you have got to really plan. You can't just run." NOW's most recent choice threatens to leave it sidelined, which means less attention will be paid to the important work that it continues to do: registering voters, energizing women and encouraging them to be a part of the political process, pushing women's issues from the margins into the mainstream. But unfortunately, supporting an outlier candidate doesn't mainstream the candidate; it makes the organization an outlier.

Leaders of women's organizations and progressive groups are deeply reticent to critique their older sister NOW, demanding that comments be on background before whispering words like "marginalized" when describing the Moseley Braun endorsement. Many feminists say that choosing viability over symbolism is a sign of maturity. "[S]ophistication," says one member of Washington's feminist activist community, means "recognizing that advancing your issues is best served by having people in office who are going to help enact them." Another reluctant feminist critic concurs. "They have huge name recognition and a long history," she says, "and yet ... they should be more sophisticated in their politics than they are. They should raise and give more money away, organize their chapters in ways to harness and work on campaigns more. It does marginalize them. Because politics has become a real profession."

Gandy implies a second endorsement may be on the way. "The most important thing to our organization is that we stick to our principles and that we support the candidate who is the best candidate at each stage. ... Our No. 1 goal is to defeat George Bush," she says, with a nod toward Moseley Braun eventually bowing out.

But won't that just make their initial endorsement moot? And contrary to 1984, when Democrats actively sought NOW's backing, how aggressively will the front-runners pursue NOW's endorsement knowing that they are, as far as NOW's concerned, second choice? Women have come too far -- and risk too much, if this president is re-elected -- to put their faith in symbolism alone.