Teresa Heinz Kerry

BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Formidable but feminine in her red blazer and brunette curls, Teresa Heinz Kerry stood before the nation Tuesday night and addressed what has become a rallying point at this week’s Democratic National Convention: women’s needs–and the need to finally address them.

“This evening, I want to acknowledge and honor the women of this world, whose wise voices have for much too long been excluded anddiscounted,” said Heinz Kerry, the spouse ofDemocratic presidential nominee John Kerry. “Itis time for the world to hear women’s voices, in full and at last.”

Her words drew thunderous applause from thousands of female Democrats who packed the floor of Boston’s Fleet Center, where the convention’s main business is unfolding this week. African American grandmothers leapt to their feet and whooped. White college activists raised their clenched fists and cheered. Latina mothers hugged their daughters close and looked on in admiration. Female delegates–who have focused on women’s issues throughout this week’s convention–answered Heinz Kerry’s expression of confidence with a hue and cry of their own.

Firebrands Take the Forefront

Heinz Kerry is only one among many strong voices speaking out here for women’s rights. In speech after passionate speech, leading female Democrats have stressed the need to address women’s concerns through sweeping policy change. For the past four days, they’ve held a flurry of back-to-back rallies, conferences and workshops.

There was the Stand Up For Choice meeting, the “Women for Kerry” lunch and the Boston ‘She’ Party. There was the Democratic National Convention Women’s Caucus and the Revolutionary Women rally.

Attending nearly every event, wearing tailored pantsuits and determined smiles, were a troop of political trailblazers: former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, U.S. Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the U.S. Senator from New York.

“In the 2000 election, 40 million women didn’t vote, including 22 million unmarried women,” said Barbara Lee, head of the Boston-based advocacy group Revolutionary Women. “These women think their votes don’t matter. But in 2000, if 6 million more women had gotten to the polls, it would have tipped the election in Gore’s favor. If these women vote Democrat in 2004, John Kerry and other progressive candidates will win in a landslide victory.”

Many who spoke directed their ire squarely at President George W. Bush, who they blasted for his record on health and job issues. According to a recent survey by EMILY’s List, a Washington, D.C.-based political action committee that support pro-choice Democratic female candidates, these two issues, after the war in Iraq, are the leading concerns of women voters in the U.S. today.

“During his administration, Bush has worked to privatize medical care and remove accurate information on women’s health from federal government Web sites,” Senator Clinton told delegates at the Democratic Women’s Caucus. “He has fought to close key offices in the Women’s Department of Labor and eliminated a program that would have allowed states to provide paid family medical leave. He has fought consistently against an increase in the minimum wage. And who is most likely to be affected by these changes? Women, particularly single mothers struggling to raise their children.”

Healthcare is Crucial Concern

The healthcare of U.S. women is a particularly sore subject for many women’s activists here. And they quickly refer to one or more of the following facts:

The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a health care policy organization based in Menlo Park, Calif., reports that 18 percent of American women ages 18 to 65 lack health insurance. Twenty-four percent of women have delayed medical treatment or gone without it in the past year because they couldn’t afford it, compared to 16 percent of men.

In recent years, the federal government has whittled away at both Medicaid coverage for poor women and Medicare coverage for those over the age of 65, the majority of whom are women.

The cost of prescription drugs is skyrocketing, as are the costs of health care premiums. Though birth control is the single highest out-of-pocket medical expense for women of child-bearing age, many health plans refuse to cover it though they do cover Viagra to enhance sexual performance for men.

Female Democrats also scorned Bush for his record on reproductive rights. They complained that he had slashed funding to abortion providers like Planned Parenthood Federation of America, signed the so-called Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act into law and nominated federal judges who are hostile to women’s rights. They condemned him for appointing Supreme Court justices whose anti-reproductive rights stances keep the 1972 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, which secured U.S. women’s right to legal abortions, hanging by a
5-to-4 margin.

“The current administration calls these policies pro-life,” said Albright at the Revolutionary Women event. “That’s worse than irony. It’s tragedy.” Albright went on to describe the rising numbers of women dying worldwide each day in childbirth because of the lack of contraception and other reproductive health care.

Work-Force Issues Raised

Leading female Democrats also blasted Bush for opposing an increase to the minimum wage that could benefit 7 million working women and for pulling the plug on the Equal Pay Initiative, a project of the U.S. Women’s Bureau that worked to bridge the wage gap.

The Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports that women still earn only 76 cents for every dollar earned by men–a figure that has barely changed since the 1970s. In addition, the United States is one of only two industrialized countries that fails to provide paid family leave for its work force. And according to the National Council of Women’s Organizations, a coalition of 200 women’s groups headquartered in Washington, D.C., the $20 billion that the U.S. government spends on child care each year is “completely inadequate” to cover the needs of working families.

As a result of these and other factors, say women’s advocates, female employees lag far behind their male counterparts in trades and professions. The Washington, D.C.-based Small Business Administration documented that America’s 9 million female-owned businesses receive less venture capital, have lower levels of bank credit and receive far fewer federal contracts that businesses owned by men. Women comprise only 1.2 percent of the chief executives in the Fortune 500 and only 7.9 percent of the highest corporate officer positions.

Kerry Pledges Change

John Kerry pledges to reverse Bush’s policies on these and other key issues affecting women. “Today, women’s concerns are America’s concerns,” he said in a statement released to Women’s Caucus delegates. “We have gathered here in Boston because we know we can do better.”

On the women’s health front, Kerry recommends reforming the health care system so all children–and 65 percent of the uninsured–can obtain comprehensive coverage. He also pledges to reduce the cost of prescription drugs by allowing re-importation from Canada and increasing funding for breast cancer and cervical cancer research.

On the job front, Kerry pledges to expand the number of female-owned businesses, close the pay gap, and improve the Family and Medical Leave Act to help more working parents afford to be care-givers. He also promises to increase the minimum hourly wage from $5.15 to $7 and push for a tax credit to make child care more affordable.

In light of these pledges, female Democrats say it’s no surprise that American women favor John Kerry. According to the EMILY’s List poll, 50 percent of female voters support Kerry while 43 percent support Bush.

To adequately address women’s issues, female Democrats are working not only to elect Kerry but to bring more female candidates to power and to draw out the women’s vote. Those from heavily Democratic states such as New York are pledging to go to the “Wal-Marts, the Kmarts and the Home Depots” in swing states to meet and energize female voters.

“This election is about women getting out there and localizing and organizing and energizing our vote,” Barbara Mikulski, a U.S. Senator from Maryland, told women Democrats at an EMILY’s List luncheon on Tuesday. “We have to be women on a mission–and I don’t mean mission impossible.”

Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City.

For more information:

Center for American Women and Politics
Eagleton Institute of Politics
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey–
CAWP Election Watch-Women Candidates 2004:

The Democratic Party–
Women’s Vote Center:

Revolutionary Women:

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