1908 Democratic convention in Denver

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–The Democrats may not have a woman at the top of the ticket, but they’re making a deep bow to this year’s close call in the presidential race with a hero to women’s rights on the vice-presidential ballot and a spotlight on women at the convention this week in Denver.

Democratic nominee Barack Obama announced Saturday he had asked his former rival in the presidential contest, Sen. Joe Biden, to run alongside him in the general election, passing over potential female contenders such as failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

Still, women’s rights advocates cheered Obama’s vice presidential pick Saturday, noting that the Delaware Democrat has championed efforts to combat domestic violence and has compiled a solid record in support of abortion rights in his 35-year congressional career.

Clinton may be the most serious female presidential contender so far, but she’s not the first to come up for nomination at a national party convention. In 1964, Republicans placed on the floor the name of former Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, the first woman to earn that distinction. And in 1972, New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman to seek a major party’s presidential nomination, received nearly 152 votes on the convention floor.

“Sen. Hillary Clinton was our first choice, and that of 18 million primary voters, but presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama’s pick, Joe Biden, is a friend of women and a strong selection for vice president,” Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, said in a statement after the announcement.

At the convention in Denver this week, Obama and Biden are slated to accept their party’s official nominations at Denver’s football stadium on Aug. 28. In a gesture to appease Clinton’s supporters, the Obama campaign has agreed to allow Clinton’s name to be placed in nomination for the presidency. Afterward, Clinton is expected to turn over her delegates to Obama and urge her supporters to back him.

It’s a piece of political theater meant to patch back together a party frayed by the grueling six-month primary season and official campaigns waged for a year and a half.

The primary confounded issues such as health care and the war in Iraq with identity politics that strained party allegiance.

Strains on Party Unity

In late July–six weeks after Clinton suspended her campaign–a nationwide poll conducted by Lifetime Networks found 18 percent of women who backed Clinton intended to vote for the GOP nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, instead of Obama.

While Obama continues to face resistance from some of Clinton’s most ardent female supporters–older and lower-income, working women–Democratic pollster Celinda Lake predicts that will start to fade. “That last 18 percent will move over when they see Hillary and Bill Clinton at the convention campaigning for Obama and on the stump for Obama.”

Biden’s name on the ticket may also help woo older women and lower-income, working women. Like Clinton, Biden has roots in the blue-collar community of Scranton, Pa. And women may be drawn to his efforts to pass and reauthorize the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, a landmark law aimed at combating domestic violence.

Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway isn’t so sure that Clinton’s fiercest supporters will flock to Obama. McCain’s appeal, she says, goes beyond hard feelings left by the primary, she says.

Some Democratic women, Conway says, may prefer McCain for the same reasons they preferred Clinton: He has more experience in federal office and he voted to authorize the president to invade Iraq. “Is it sort of an ‘I’ll show you?’ Or is it much more on the issues?”

Obama has a wide gender gap advantage, with support among 49 percent of likely female voters compared to McCain’s 38 percent, according to the Lifetime poll. Some 10 percent of women are undecided, suggesting the race could tighten if most of those swing to McCain.

Obama’s strongest female support is among women of color; he also leads among unaffiliated women. McCain enjoys the edge among white women.

Historic Significance

When Denver first played host to the Democratic National Convention in 1908, women’s rights activists demanded the right to vote. Men inside the meeting ignored them and women’s suffrage was put off until 1920.

A century later, women’s rights activists in the Mile High City will once again be pushing for greater equality at protests, parties and professional events around the city, including two panel discussions on issues of particular concern to women sponsored by Women’s eNews.

But this time women will also be active inside the convention hall and will wield unprecedented control over the convention proceedings.

For the first time ever, all four convention chairs are women.

Led by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking woman in elected office, the four convention chairs will preside over the proceedings, ensuring that the event unfolds in a calm and efficient manner.

In addition to Pelosi, three other women serve as chairs: Sebelius, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association; Leticia Van de Putte, a Latina state senator from Texas who is president of the National Conference of State Legislatures; and Shirley Franklin, an African American mayor from Atlanta who heads up the National Conference of Democratic Mayors.

Meanwhile, women hold five of the seven senior leadership positions on the convention committee and are in charge of managing day-to-day strategy and operations.

Democrats have gathered every four years since 1832 at a national party convention to nominate and approve candidates to represent the party on the presidential ballot in the general election and adopt a platform outlining the party’s position on a range of policies.

To represent the party, presidential and vice-presidential nominees must receive a majority of votes from delegates representing the 50 states and the U.S. territories.

Conventions also serve a political function: unifying the party after often bitter primary battles as it heads into the general election season.

Men Are Stars of the Show

Men will be the biggest stars of the show, with Obama and Biden in the limelight and Virginia Gov. Mark Warner delivering the convention’s keynote address on Tuesday. Democrats hope Warner will help the party win Virginia for the first time since 1964.

But women have major speaking roles the first two days of the convention. Michelle Obama headlines on Monday, Aug. 25, and Clinton will speak on Tuesday, the 88th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote.

Several other prominent female politicians will also give prime-time speeches, including Pelosi; Lily Ledbetter, who lost a Supreme Court case for the right to sue employers for wage discrimination; and early female Obama backers including Sebelius, Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, all of whom were mentioned as possible vice presidential nominees.

The 186-member Platform Drafting Committee, headed by Napolitano, approved inclusion in the platform of an enhanced section on women’s rights that states, “We believe that standing up for our country means standing up against sexism and all intolerance‚ĶResponsibility lies with us all.”

The platform maintains support for abortion rights but adds new emphasis on preventing unintended pregnancy, a move that satisfied most pro-choice activists and won some plaudits from party members who oppose abortion.

Democrats hope that shining a light on women at the convention and in the platform will shore up support for Obama among women, who vote in higher numbers than men and therefore hold a disproportionate influence on the outcome of most general elections.

“Women really can’t be and shouldn’t be taken for granted,” said Toby Graff, senior vice president for New York-based Lifetime Networks, which sponsors a quadrennial “Every Woman Counts” campaign to raise the profile of issues of importance to women, encourage women to run for office and help women vote. “They’ve decided every presidential election since 1968.”

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

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