John Kerry

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Politicians are often accused of talking the talk on the campaign trail but not always walking the walk in Washington.

But as Sen. John Kerry enters the Super Tuesday primary races as the Democratic frontrunner today, many women’s activists say that with him, it’s the other way around. While Kerry has been pro-choice during his Senatecareer and has supported closing the gender-paygap, some women’s activists say theman from Massachusetts–along with most of thecontenders–is giving women’s issues a bit of a coldshoulder on the hustings.

Karen O’Connor, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University in Washington, D.C., said she has been “astounded” by the lack of attention paid to women’s issues during the campaign. “It’s very troubling to me in this election cycle to see that women’s issues don’t appear to be on the table at all,” she said. “To me, there’s been a lot more concern in this election cycle on people’s wives and what their names are and whether they are or are not a prop than on anything substantive. I think we’re going from Madam President Barbie back to First Lady Barbie.”

Martha Burk, head of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of Women’s Organizations, an umbrella organization of hundreds of women’s groups, agreed. “You would expect a little more targeted appeal . . . for the simple reason that women are clearly the majority of voters and have the ability to control any election,” she said.

Census Counts Women’s Voting Clout

About 8 million more women than men are eligible to vote in this country and about 9 million more women than men are registered to vote, according to 2000 census figures reported by WomenMatter, a non-profit organization in Philadelphia devoted to drawing women into the political process. In 2000, about 14 million more women than men reported that they voted, according to the site.

Female voters also tend to favor Democratic candidates, which may explain why Kerry has been accused of taking them for granted. Last January, for instance, he earned some scowls from women’s rights leaders when he skipped a debate in New Hampshire on issues of importance to female voters, such as the domestic violence and the minimum wage, which affects more women than men because they hold more lower-wage jobs.

Only three candidates–former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman–did bother to attend the event, put on by Lifetime TV in Hanover two days before the state’s critical primaries.

Female leaders say Kerry would be wise to make this colossal voting bloc a priority. If he doesn’t pay attention to them, they may lack the enthusiasm to turn out to the polls on Election Day, which could cost him votes in what will no doubt be a hard-fought general election.

So far Kerry has emphasized his combat experience during the Vietnam War, an issue that plays particularly well with men. Female activists say that when he–or any of the others, for that matter–discusses other issues, such as the so-called jobless recovery or the use of intelligence to build support for the war in Iraq, he rarely tailors the issue to a female audience. Even discussions about reforming Social Security and Medicare–programs that disproportionately affect women since women tend to live longer and need these safety nets more in older age–are not geared to women, they say.

When Kerry does speak to issues directly related to women, he–again like most of his rivals–tends to focus on abortion rights, an issue that Burk says is a hot-button issue that fires up the base but, according to polls, is not women’s No. 1 concern. That distinction falls to the gap in pay equity, a subject that, like child care and equality in sports education, has fallen by the wayside in this campaign.

Program to Energize Female Voters

The Kerry campaign did not respond to requests for comment. But Kerry’s campaign Web site details his record in support of women’s rights. A consistent backer of reproductive rights, he has vowed to appoint only pro-choice justices to the High Court. He also supports efforts to minimize the pay equity gap. He has worked to enhance health care coverage for women, increase federal funds for child care and promote programs to help women start their own small businesses.

The site also notes that Kerry has hired a large number of women to run his campaign, including campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill and spokesperson Stephanie Cutter. And a campaign spokesperson noted that Kerry has hired two women from the Clinton administration–Susan Liss and Robin Leeds–to launch Women’s Voices on the Trail, a grassroots effort to reach out to women in conference calls, Web chats and other events.

With the exception of Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, who withdrew from the presidential race in January, women’s activists don’t see any candidates who have done much better than Kerry in addressing women. Kerry even seems slightly more attentive than some of the others, according to Nancy Bauer, head of the nonpartisan WomenMatter.

She noted that he was one of only four candidates who made the effort to participate in a live interview on a wide range of domestic and foreign policy issues before the Iowa caucuses.

Kerry also won major kudos from women’s rights activists at a debate in California last month, when he declared that one of his first acts as president would be to overturn the gag rule, an executive order reinstated by the Bush administration that prohibits any organization that receives funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development from performing abortions, providing information about abortions or advocating for change in its nation’s abortion laws.

Still, some women’s activists, such as Susan Medalie, executive director of the Women’s Campaign Fund, a Washington, D.C., political action committee dedicated to electing pro-choice women, say more needs to be done.

“I am never satisfied with the attention paid to women,” Medalie said. “We are 52 percent of the voting population. If we were shareholders in a company, we’d call the tune.”

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington, D.C.

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