Sen. Hillary Clinton

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–A number of women’s rights groups who might be considered the natural foundation of a historic White House bid by a strong female candidate are holding back support for New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, considered the early front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2008.

"I would be really disappointed if Hillary Clinton were the first woman president," said Medea Benjamin, a self-described feminist and founder of Code Pink, a women-initiated antiwar group based in Venice, Calif.

Among issues of concern to some women are Clinton’s support of the war in Iraq, her rhetorical emphasis on preventing pregnancy rather than abortion rights and her reluctance to back universal health care.

"It’s that push and pull of wanting to see a woman at that level of government and also wanting to see that issues that affect my life as a woman are being addressed," said Jen Sunderland, chair of the Women’s Liberation Social Wage Committee, a New York group that lobbies for better wages and benefits for women and parents.

Clinton has teamed up with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada who opposes abortion rights, to introduce legislation aimed at preventing pregnancy by enhancing access to contraception and reducing health care costs. Critics see the bill as an attempt to shift the debate away from the controversial issue of abortion rights.

"I would like Senator Clinton, as I would like all pro-choice representatives, to start any conversation about reproductive justice and reproductive health by saying, ‘I support access to safe, affordable, legal abortions,’ period," said Melody Drnach, action vice president at the Washington-based National Organization for Women.

Plenty of Women Thrilled

Plenty of women are thrilled with the possibility of voting for Clinton in 2008, said Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project, a group in New York aimed at seating a woman in the presidency. Young women in particular view Clinton as a "rock star," she said.

Wilson says Clinton faces higher expectations from voters–including women–because she is the first credible woman to consider running for the presidency.

Progressive women in particular want the first serious female candidate to be "100 percent perfect on issues," Wilson said.

"Women always suffer more scrutiny and they always suffer sharper criticism," added Georgia Duerst-Lahti, a professor of political science and women’s studies at Beloit College in Beloit, Wis. "Every move she makes is magnified."

Clinton has not said whether she will seek her party’s presidential nomination.

Spokesperson Ann Lewis said Clinton is focusing on winning re-election to her Senate seat and can expect strong support from women in the November elections. In her 2000 campaign, Clinton won the women’s vote by a margin of 60 to 39 percent, Lewis said.

"We are very pleased with the support we’re getting from women," Lewis told Women’s eNews, noting endorsements for the September primary by the New York state chapters of NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood Federation of America, both pro-choice groups.

Clinton earned a 100 percent rating last year from NARAL Pro-Choice America, the country’s leading abortion rights lobby, and voted against the nominations of Samuel Alito and John Roberts to the Supreme Court.

Clinton has championed legislation that would address pay disparities between men and women and another bill that would raise the minimum wage. She has fought to preserve Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which disproportionately aid women because they tend to have lower incomes than men. She has worked to protect equal access for girls and women in sports and education and supports increased funding for small businesses owned by women and programs that aid battered women. She is also co-chair of Vital Voices, an international program she initiated as first lady that invests in emerging female leaders around the world.

Reflexive Support Missing

But many women are not giving Clinton the reflexive support that might be expected, saying they’d rather support a man who shares their ideological views than a woman who shares their biological makeup. Code Pink’s Benjamin, for instance, likes Sen. Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who authored legislation calling for the withdrawal of nearly all U.S. troops from Iraq by July 2007.

Sen. Clinton speaks to women's group.

Reproductive rights advocates have also faulted Clinton for backing Bob Casey, the anti-choice Pennsylvania Democrat who is running against incumbent Republican Rick Santorum for Senate this fall. "She has gone out of her way to support Bob Casey’s candidacy and that is of significant concern to us," Drnach said.

Others have taken Clinton to task for declining to support universal health care, an issue that women’s rights activists say would benefit women because they are often left without health insurance if they take time off work to care for family members.

"We’re definitely disappointed," said Allison Guttu of the New York-based Women’s Liberation Social Wage Committee. "It seems as if she’s ignoring feminists and that she’s ignoring feminist demands."

If she runs for president, Clinton cannot bank on automatic endorsements from female voters and women’s rights groups, said Gilda Morales, a researcher at the Center for American Women and Politics, at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. "Women just don’t vote for women because of gender," said Morales. "Women vote on the issues."

War Is Key Concern

A key area of concern is Clinton’s position on the war, said NOW’s Drnach.

Clinton voted in 2002 to grant President Bush the authority to invade Iraq.

Last week she voted against a measure that would withdraw most U.S. troops from the region by July 2007. Instead, she favored a non-binding resolution that called on the administration to begin withdrawing troops by the end of this year. Both measures failed.

Those votes could dent her support among female voters, Morales said, noting that polls show that a majority of women oppose the war. An AP-Ipsos poll taken in the first week of June showed that 70 percent of women disapproved of Bush’s handling of Iraq.

Prominent female columnists, meanwhile, have been getting in digs at Clinton.

"Hillary Clinton is determined to single-handedly remove every last vestige of authenticity from American politics," wrote Arianna Huffington in a May 14 column on her Web site, The Huffington Post. She is a former conservative who made a high-profile about-face to become a self-styled "progressive populist."

Among other things, Huffington criticized Clinton’s support for legislation that would criminalize flag burning and "endless photo-op ready partnerships" with Republicans ranging from former Speaker Newt Gingrich to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Molly Ivins, the Texan who routinely blasts President Bush, declared that she would not back Clinton for president in a January column published by The Free Press, a nonprofit organization sponsored by the Columbus Institute for Contemporary Journalism in Ohio. "Enough triangulation, calculation and equivocation," she wrote. "Enough clever straddling. Enough not offending anyone."

Despite the reservations some women and women’s groups are expressing about Clinton at this early date, Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, says Clinton could benefit from strong female support down the line, especially if she manages to win the nomination in 2008.

"It’s too early to know how women will respond to this," she said. "I would certainly guess that there’s going to be a very important surge of support from women."

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

For more information:

Hillary Clinton for Senate:

Code Pink Women for Peace:

The White House Project: