women and flag

BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)–During prime-time, speakers at the Democratic National Convention are selling John Kerry as a candidate who can make America more secure. Behind the scenes, women’s leaders are girding for political war on President Bush.

“We are launching a call to arms to the women of America,” said Ellen Malcolm, president of EMILY’s List, which raises money to support pro-choice female Democratic candidates. “We will unleash the power of women to defeat George W. Bush.”

Although neither Kerry nor the convention that will nominate him for president has been drawing significant attention to women’s issues, women’s rights advocates say they will work like never before to put their candidate in the White House.

“We can’t figure out why on earth any woman in America would vote for George Bush again,” former Texas Gov. Ann Richards said Tuesday. “We can’t understand why they don’t see what we see.”

Since the convention started Monday, women’s rights groups have sponsored back-to-back rallies, strategy sessions and fundraisers with one overriding goal: to unseat Bush.

“We know if we get the women’s vote out and get to the polls, John Kerry wins,” declared U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York.

The numbers tell the story. In 2000, 54 percent of the women who voted backed Democrat Al Gore, compared to 43 percent who supported Bush. But 40 million eligible female voters did not go to the polls. The majority of them–22 million–are single. This year, pollsters have determined the latter group could very well be the key to victory.

“Those 22 million women can change the face of the nation,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told 2,000 donors at an EMILY’s List luncheon Tuesday. “But only if we find them.”

Fifty percent of women support Kerry and 43 percent support Bush, according to a recent poll sponsored by EMILY’s List. Nearly two-thirds of undecided voters and a majority of swing voters are women, other pollsters have found.

Both Democrats and Republicans are going after them.

Why They Oppose Bush

Bush has tried to reach out to women with his message of “compassionate conservatism.” But women’s rights leaders and Democratic stalwarts argue that the president does not have women’s best interests in mind, in part because he has restricted abortion rights and access to birth control, opposed efforts to raise the minimum wage and removed information about women’s health and family planning from government Web sites.

The Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the political arm of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, is reaching out to unmarried women in eight battleground states in what president Gloria Feldt described as an unprecedented canvassing effort.

Focus on Young and Single Women

“It’s recognizing that young women and single women often don’t vote, not because they don’t care, but because they feel they don’t make a difference,” Feldt said in an interview. “They are so busy that politics takes second place.”

Not only will volunteers identify and target potential Kerry voters, but they will contact them 8 to 10 times before Election Day to make sure they turn out at the polls, Feldt said.

EMILY’s List also is spending tens of millions of dollars to mobilize female voters, said the group’s national political director, Karen M. White. She said Kerry was right to focus on terrorism and Iraq as he introduces himself to a national audience.

“Once women know more about John Kerry and how he’ll protect the country and make the country safe, then they’ll move on to issues they’ll vote on,” she said.

“Swing men are already in Bush’s camp. The swing women are more available to Kerry,” White said, but added, “He’ll have to work for them.”

Off-Camera Mood

At a convention that Kerry has deemed should be positive, viewers are unlikely to get the full flavor of the mood. The major networks, which are airing little of the convention, have shown little of the Bush bashing taking place outside the convention hall this week.

During the EMILY’s List luncheon, Richards, who as governor of Texas was defeated by Bush, recited a litany of administration policies that she described as “harmful and destructive” to women. These included rule changes that prevented some states from offering paid family leave to cuts in after-school care. Emily’s List Malcolm charged that the administration has a goal “of making women subservient and politically powerless.”

On the campaign trail, Kerry has not routinely focused on so-called women’s issues, either by boasting of his own record or vilifying Bush’s. And veteran labor leader Dolores Huerta, who is heading the campaign’s Women for Kerry effort, said Kerry has not created a budget to help her reach out to women.

“To really get the job done, you need to have a paid staff to do it. I believe in more than voter registration,” she said in an interview.

“In most presidential campaigns, the women’s component has been dramatically under-funded,” said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. “I had hoped that that would not be the case with this campaign, since 65 percent of undecided voters are women . . . It is not reasonable to assume that women will simply turn out with out being mobilized.”

Gandy noted that NOW and other groups are raising money to turn out the women’s vote on November 2. But, she added, “women’s groups can’t do it by ourselves.”

Tory Vallely, Kerry’s director of women’s outreach, said the campaign will fund Huerta’s effort. She said the campaign is crafting strategies unique to specific states–such as a New Mexico program in which each volunteer is to mobilize 10 women to vote–and will work with women’s groups to attract and energize female voters.

But some women’s leaders would like to see the campaign and the convention put their issues front and center.

Some Disappointment

“I have been disappointed in the way women’s issues have been addressed at this convention,” said Martha Burk, president of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, a Washington-based umbrella group. “At so-called women’s events, it is great,” Burk said. But most Americans don’t see that, she added.

“Once again, the issues have been ghettoized. I think that is why the polls are showing Kerry’s not connecting . . . He has a great voting record, and when asked he makes good statements. But he ought not to have to be asked.”

The absence of women’s issues from the prime-time speeches certainly has not dampened the enthusiasm of women’s activists determined to replace a president they say is undoing the progress of decades.

Women’s leaders such as Gandy and the Feminist Majority’s Eleanor Smeal have rushed from one event to another for two days straight.

Plus, Kate Michelman, the well-known former head of NARAL Pro-Choice America, has now launched the “Campaign to Save the Court,” a Democratic effort to demonstrate a second Bush term would place civil rights, women’s rights and workers’ rights at risk.

Hundreds of women attended a rousing rally sponsored by Lifetime Television Tuesday featuring Senators Hillary Clinton of New York and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

“Leave this convention energized and committed,” Clinton told women and men who responded by beating small tambourines. “We need you on phone banks, we need you walking door to door. We need you e-mailing . . . You must be part of a citizen army to make sure every vote counts.”

Jodi Enda, Women’s eNews Washington bureau chief, covers politics and government.

For more information:

EMILY’s List:

National Organization for Women:

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