Kate Michelman

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–As former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the country’s leading abortion rights lobby, Kate Michelman is one of the most recognizable faces in the women’s rights movement.

But now that she has an opportunity to help the first woman in history with a serious chance at becoming U.S. president, Michelman wants no part of it.

Instead of backing Hillary Rodham Clinton’s bid for the Democratic nomination, Michelman has signed on as a senior adviser to John Edwards of North Carolina, one of Clinton’s main rivals. Both are pro-choice, as are the six other serious candidates seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination.

In her new role, Michelman travels across the country organizing support among women for Edwards, a former senator who ran for vice president alongside Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry in 2004. She also serves as a policy adviser and speaks as a surrogate at his campaign events.

“If you care about women’s issues, he is the candidate to vote for,” said Michelman, who points to Edwards’ focus on the poor–a majority of whom are women–as the main reason why she backs him.

“John Edwards may not have always talked about his issues–poverty, health care and low-wage jobs–in terms of gender,” said Michelman, a former stay-at-home mother who was abandoned by her husband and went on welfare to support her three daughters. “But there is no question that those are issues that most affect women, and he is the only person who has been speaking for those who have no voice.”

Other prominent women’s rights leaders are turning down the chance to line up behind Clinton, the frontrunner in the Democratic primary, putting strong women’s rights advocates in the camp of virtually every major Democratic presidential candidate.

Burk in Richardson Camp

Martha Burk

Martha Burk, former president of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, a Washington, D.C.-based umbrella organization that represents more than 10 million women, has joined the presidential campaign for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the most competitive of the second-tier grouping of Democratic hopefuls. A founder of a policy research organization, Burk led the fight to open Augusta National Golf Club to women and authored a book about sex discrimination in corporate culture.

Burk points to the war in Iraq to explain why she backs Richardson. Clinton has called to end the war by 2009; Richardson wants to withdraw all troops by the end of the year.

That strong anti-war position appeals to women because they oppose the war in greater numbers than do men, Burk said.

Working for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is Betsy Myers, an expert on women’s equity who worked in the White House Office for Women Initiatives and Outreach in the Bill Clinton administration. Obama also has endorsements from Oprah Winfrey and Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Myers says her boss is the best bet for women because he is an inspiring leader and pragmatic lawmaker who can work across party lines to get things done. She also notes he was raised by a single mother and appreciates women’s struggles.

“I have the utmost respect for Hillary and I worked with her in my time at the White House,” Myers said. “But for me personally Barack Obama is an amazing, authentic candidate who is right for this generation.”

Activist Women on Campaign Rosters

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware will be getting campaign advice from Celinda Lake, president of Washington polling firm Lake Research Partners. She bills herself as one of the nation’s foremost experts on electing female candidates and framing issues to female voters.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio has not hired anyone to focus exclusively on women’s issues in his campaign, but Kucinich spokesperson Sharon Jimenez says the Ohio lawmaker has integrated female aides at all levels of the campaign to address issues of concern to women. His new wife, Elizabeth, is also a key adviser on the campaign.

Ex-Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska is running a shoestring campaign and hasn’t hired a specific staffer to speak to or for women. But he hopes supporter Doris Haddock, a 97-year-old campaign reform activist who walked across the continental United States and is known as Granny D, will draw female backing.

A spokesperson for Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut did not return calls for comment. He has been a leader in the Senate on women’s issues, authoring the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which granted certain employees the right to take unpaid leave to care for themselves or relatives.

Burk says the presence of women’s rights advocates in a number of campaigns speaks to the strength of the Democratic field and ensures that issues of concern to women will be well-articulated throughout the primary and general election campaigns.

“If women believed there was only one candidate that would be good for women I think we would all be with that candidate,” Burk said. “If anything this is a reflection of how strong the field is in general.”

Reflects Maturity of the Movement

It also reflects the maturity of the women’s rights movement, Michelman said.

“We’re politically positioned enough to not feel that gender is the only issue to be considered as we continue to advocate for women and change society for women,” she said. “We’ve arrived at that place where our influence can be felt across the board. We’re motivated and inspired by more than just gender.”

Though the prominent detractors could be seen as a rebuke to her candidacy, Clinton can still count on broad backing among women. An American Research Group poll released May 14 showed Clinton heavily favored by Democratic women, with 47 percent of the their vote. Obama and Edwards had 18 percent and 15 percent respectively, according to the poll.

Among Clinton’s female supporters is a phalanx of political heavyweights that includes Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Reps. Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas and Stephanie Tubbs-Jones of Ohio.

Geraldine Ferraro, the former New York House member who became the first woman nominated on a major-party ticket when she sought the vice presidency under Walter Mondale in 1984, gave Clinton an early endorsement and is serving as a surrogate on the trail and an advisor on the campaign.

Endorsements have also come from Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as secretary of state; retired Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy, the first woman to be named a three-star general in the U.S. Army; and human rights activist Dolores Huerta, who fought for women’s rights as co-founder of United Farm Workers of America.

And Clinton has won early backing from a roster of national women’s political organizations in Washington, D.C., that includes EMILY’S List, a political action committee devoted to electing pro-choice female Democrats, the National Organization for Women, the National Women’s Political Caucus and the Women’s Campaign Forum.

“We have a fabulous list of women leaders . . . and that list keeps on growing,” said Ann Lewis, a senior adviser to Clinton.

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

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

Women’s eNews Spotlight on 2008 Presidential Election:

“Hillary Moves Women to Campaign’s Front Burner”:

“Female Base for Hillary in ’08 Is No Sure Thing”: