WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–In the days leading up to this week’s hearings of Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel Alito, a small group of reproductive rights advocates interrupted a news conference held at the National Press Club by women supporting his nomination. “Bush and Alito will outlaw abortion and women will die!” the demonstrators chanted.
The Washington scene showcased one strategy of the coalition aligned against Alito: Shine a high beam on the risk of women losing their reproductive rights if Alito wins a seat on the high court.
The strategy, however, was not universally recommended by veteran women’s rights activists who also wanted to block Alito’s nomination. In this camp, some believed an intensive focus on abortion might backfire.
Taking lessons from the nomination process of Clarence Thomas, who 15 years ago won Senate confirmation despite allegations he sexually harassed a colleague, they called on Alito opponents to broaden the debate beyond abortion and focus on a wider range of issues that resonate with more voters. A vote on Alito’s nomination is expected Jan. 17.
“I think there are much deeper criticisms that are warranted for his past record and for what he’s likely to do,” said former Rep. Jolene Unsoeld, a Democrat from Washington state who played a pivotal role in the Thomas nomination. “I think he believes in the supremacy of a monarchical king-president. I think that’s more scary than just how one views women’s reproductive rights.”
Former Democratic Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, now president of the Association of American Publishers in New York, agreed. “I think it’s very sad that women get boxed into the only thing they care about are reproductive freedoms and they really care about a whole range of freedoms.”
Learning from Experience
Schroeder and Unsoeld learned from experience.
They were among seven female Democrats in the House of Representatives who marched across the Capitol complex and up the Senate steps on Oct. 8, 1991, to demand that senators delay the final vote on the Thomas nomination to explore allegations of sexual harassment leveled against him by his former colleague, Anita Hill.
The Democratic women asked to enter a private meeting of Senate Democrats–only one of whom was a woman–to make their case. Democratic leaders refused to admit the seven women from the House, leaving them to fume outside in the hallway.
The women eventually got their way when Senate leaders allowed Hill to testify. This was thanks in part to publicity surrounding their now famous march, which was captured in a Paul Hosefros photograph published the following day on the front page of the New York Times. Thomas nonetheless went on to win Senate confirmation by a 52-48 margin.
One reason Thomas won confirmation was because his opponents did not generate immediate support from a broad enough spectrum of voters, Schroeder recalled. With that defeat in mind, Schroeder suggested reframing this year’s debate to focus on issues in addition to abortion that resonate with all Americans, such as other women’s rights, diversity issues and the power of the executive.
That was the aim of a Jan. 9 letter authored by Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, a 20-year veteran of the House who participated in the 1991 march.
“Judge Alito has a long record of extreme views on women’s reproductive health, sexual and workplace discrimination, the Family Medical Leave Act and civil rights,” she wrote in the letter, signed by 22 female representatives. “He has worked to thwart established precedent and has affiliated himself with radical organizations that have actively sought to keep women and minorities from advancing educationally and economically.”
Broadening the Debate
Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster and an Alito proponent, seconded the call to broaden the debate beyond abortion.
The Supreme Court will hear only a few abortion cases in the near future, but it will consider a broad range of other issues that affect women in areas such as business, commerce, health, education, property, civil rights and marriage, she said.
“To sort of pigeonhole women’s views according to this one issue . . . is to be unfair, frankly, to both women and to the justice that would serve them,” Conway said.
At the press conference that drew the pro-choice demonstrators last week, conservative female speakers said liberal women’s groups were hyping abortion and called it a “tired” tactic that “radical feminists” had used against nominees such as John Paul Stevens in 1975, Anthony Kennedy in 1988 and David Souter in 1990.
“The left has cried wolf far too many times,” said Jan LaRue, chief counsel for Concerned Women for America in Washington, D.C., which backs Alito’s nomination.
Unsoeld, however, said media organizations are to blame for oversimplifying women’s concerns and focusing exclusively on abortion.
Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal, meanwhile, said women had many reasons beyond abortion to oppose Alito. “If you don’t have a job and you can’t get educated, that’s very fundamental. We think that all these issues matter and the public should know about it.”
Smeal said conservatives in the White House and special interest groups have tried to confine the women’s rights movement to the issue of abortion as a matter of political strategy. “They feel we don’t have a lot of votes on that issue,” she said. “But in reality we do.”
Another participant in the anti-Thomas march years ago was Democratic Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia. She cautioned against suppressing reproductive rights, an issue she said that “stands way above every other issue.”
The issue of excessive use of power by the executive branch has risen to a close second in the wake of recent news reports about the president’s practice of eavesdropping on American citizens without warrants, she said.
But she added: “The first word out of anybody’s mouth is choice. The reason for that is this nominee has been more explicit that women should not have a constitutional right to abortion.”
Abortion the First Question
That was the case on Tuesday morning, when Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania who supports abortion rights, opened the Alito hearing with a series of questions about his views on abortion.
In response, Alito distanced himself from a statement he made in a 1985 job application that he saw no constitutional basis for abortion rights and also said he would approach questions relating to abortion with an “open mind.”
Ann Stone, chair of Republicans for Choice in Alexandria, Va., called Alito evasive. “Oh, he’s going to have an open mind,” she said. “But what the hell does that mean?”
A Jan. 9 Gallup poll by CNN and USA Today showed that 56 percent of Americans would not support Alito if he says he would rule against Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that said women had a constitutional right to abortion but permitted restrictions. Thirty-four percent said they would support Alito if the confirmation hearings revealed that he would oppose Roe.
Even if Alito wins confirmation in the Republican-controlled Senate–as was the conventional wisdom heading into the hearings–there may be a silver lining for women’s rights advocates, Norton said, just as the Thomas victory in 1991 preceded historic victories for women in Congress in the 1992 election.
“If, in fact, Alito is confirmed, I think it could set off another ‘Year of the Woman,’ unless he is somehow able to explain away his personal and legal views on abortion,” Norton said.
Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.
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