Barack Obama campaigns with Oprah Winfrey.

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–As Illinois Sen. Barack Obama heads into the final stretch of presidential nominating contests for the Democratic Party, he is riding a wave of support from a key group of Democratic voters: female anti-war activists.

As of Feb. 20, more than 1,200 “feminists for peace” had signed a statement endorsing Obama; signatories include prominent women’s rights advocates such as writers Barbara Ehrenreich and Katha Pollitt; Ruth Rosen, a noted journalist and historian; and Ellen Bravo, former director of 9to5, the National Association of Working Women.

The petition reflects a deepening divide between grassroots female activists backing Obama and leaders of the women’s rights establishment, which has given overwhelming support to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, the first woman to mount a viable bid for the White House.

Convictions are intensifying as the protracted nomination battle heads into critical primaries on March 4 in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont. In some cases the debate is fierce, with accusations of betrayal, naivete and hypocrisy flying around.

“I don’t think it’s a betrayal to support Obama,” Rosen, who has written extensively against the Iraq war, said. “I think it’s a positive step to embrace the candidate who supports the broadest feminist values.”

Other prominent female Obama supporters–such as television talk show queen Oprah Winfrey and Kate Michelman, the former president of Washington-based NARAL Pro-Choice America and a former advisor to ex-presidential hopeful John Edwards–have been put on the defensive.

In a speech at an Obama rally earlier this month, Winfrey said two women in Iowa “had the nerve” to call her a traitor. “They say because I’m a woman I have to vote for a woman,” she told the audience at the University of California, Los Angeles. “You’re not a traitor because you believe and see a better way.”

Sparks Fly Between Camps

Opposition to Clinton among different segments of Democratic women has angered some prominent women’s rights advocates.

“I’m outraged at certain women who categorize themselves as being strong feminists who rant and rave about how the media has treated Hillary so badly, and then in the next breath leave all that behind and go support Obama, who’s been treated so favorably,” said Gloria Feldt, former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

“You cannot have it both ways, women,” she asserted. “This is politics after all.”

At the crux of the debate is the question of gender.

It is not a question of absolutes: Neither camp advocates basing political decisions entirely on gender.

Rather, the debate is over how much weight to give gender, with anti-war activists putting a higher premium on policy positions and electability.

“What has always been most important to me is not the gender of the person but what values that person promotes,” Rosen said. The difference is “women being empowered as opposed to being in power.”

Rosen and others argue that Obama’s initial opposition to the Iraq war makes him a better choice for women than Clinton, who voted in 2002 to authorize the use of force in Iraq and has since objected to fixed timelines to troop withdrawals.

In her campaign, Clinton has pledged to begin a phased withdrawal within 60 days of taking office; Obama, who objected to the war authorization leading up to his 2004 bid for the Senate, has said he would withdraw all troops within 16 months of taking office.

Taking Issue With Clinton

“Voting for Bush’s war showed Sen. Clinton more concerned with future political viability than with the impact of war on the world’s women, men, families and the environment,” Eileen Boris, a professor and director of the Center for Research on Women and Social Justice at the University of California, Santa Barbara, states in the petition. “That’s not my idea of global feminism.”

Female anti-war activists see the war as a women’s issue not only because women serve as soldiers but also because it has diverted billions of federal dollars away from programs that aid the poor, most of whom are women.

“The war is a critical women’s issue,” Bravo said. “Solutions women desperately need in terms of health care, child care support and funds to fight violence have been stolen from us by this horrific war.”

Anti-war activists also praise Obama’s broader appeal and ability to energize the base. Obama outpolls Clinton in head-to-head match-ups against Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, indicating he has a better chance at winning the presidency in November. “Anything that weakens the big boys helps us all,” Bravo said.

But National Organization for Women President Kim Gandy notes that Obama and Clinton have “virtually identical” records on Senate votes relating to Iraq, with both having voted to continue funding for the war.

Obama’s initial opposition to the war does not justify missing an opportunity to elevate to the nation’s highest office a woman who has demonstrated a commitment to issues of concern to women throughout her career, Gandy said.

Studies show that women’s presence in office leads to more women-friendly policies, according to the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Women of both parties introduce more legislation targeted at helping women and work harder and across party lines to enact those bills.

Female Leaders Pushed Bills

That was evident in the congressional cycle following the 1992 Year of the Woman, when women nearly doubled their representation in the House and Senate. That cycle saw two landmark laws–championed by female legislators–allowing workers to take up to three months of unpaid leave to care for children and relatives and providing new funds for combating domestic violence.

Meanwhile, female officeholders–especially heads of state–serve as role models for other women, which helps them achieve political parity at all levels of government, said Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group in New York dedicated to electing a woman to the White House.

“Gender does matter,” Wilson said. “Women open the door to a different kind of government.”

Last March, Clinton picked up the women’s policy mantle by making a heavy push for wage parity in her campaign, an issue that did not get attention from her male rivals until later in the year.

That followed a career in the Senate in which she distinguished herself from male colleagues–including Obama–on issues of concern to women, asserted nine women’s rights leaders in a joint letter issued earlier this month backing her.

During her tenure, Clinton spoke out against the nominations of Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts, forced the Bush administration to make emergency contraception available without a prescription and fought to increase funding for contraception and family planning services.

In their joint letter, Gandy, Feldt, Gloria Steinem, Feminist Majority Foundation President Ellie Smeal and others declare: “Every time we needed her by our side, she has been there.”

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:

Feminists for Peace and Barack Obama letter:

NOW Political Action Committee, open letter for Hillary Clinton:

Note: Women’s eNews is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites and the contents of Web pages we link to may change without notice.