Rep. Nancy Pelosi speaks to 'unconventional women.

DENVER (WOMENSENEWS)–As the Democratic National Convention got underway in Denver Monday, key women’s rights activists put on a convention of their own with a full roster of events around the city aimed at elevating issues of particular concern to women and electing more women to political office.

The number of women-themed events at this year’s convention is “off the charts,” said Barbara Lee, head of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, in Cambridge, Mass., a philanthropy that supports programs aimed at increasing women’s representation in politics, public policy and the news media.

The burst of activity, she said, is fostered by the narrow loss of presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton, who waged a historic campaign that inspired women around the country to engage in the political process. “Women are on a roll,” Lee said.

The loose gathering of activists kicked off with “Unconventional Women,” a six-hour symposium that got its start with a reference to another landmark event, the Women’s Rights Convention of 1848 in Seneca Falls, N.Y., where suffragists first issued a formal demand for the right to vote. Organizers estimated the Unconventional Women symposium drew 3,000 women to the Denver Performing Arts Center.

Women’s groups staged a round of panels, parties and social events elsewhere throughout the day, including a summit to identify future female political leaders; an afternoon tea studded with prominent lawmakers and women’s rights leaders; and a late-night cocktail party put on by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America to energize activists.

The women-themed activity continues throughout the week with events from early-morning political raps to late-night parties: activists will have breakfast with the likes of Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon; lunch with Michelle Obama; afternoon tea and sandwiches with Pelosi; and late-night cocktails with Planned Parenthood Federation of America president Cecile Richards, daughter of Ann Richards, the former governor of Texas and Democratic Party icon who died in 2006.

Highlighting Key Issues

Meanwhile, Women’s eNews, the Ms. Foundation for Women and the Women’s Media Center are teaming up to sponsor panel discussions on sexism in the media and a broad scope of issues such as the gender wage gap, barriers to employment, poverty, homophobia, reproductive health and domestic violence.

The events have three goals: promoting issues of concern to women, encouraging women to run for office in the future and supporting female political candidates already on the ballot.

But many organizers are also working to build positive energy and excitement about convention events that will help Clinton supporters move past what they decried as sexism in the media that helped drain her presidential hopes.

They also hope to mend relations within the party establishment during the battle for the Democratic Party’s primary nod and build momentum for the man who defeated Clinton in the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Sen. Barack Obama. Obama’s selection of Joe Biden as his running mate on Saturday was met with approval by many women’s rights groups, who view the senator from Delaware as a key legislative ally.

Motivating the Women’s Wing

“The whole goal is to motivate, inspire and inform,” said Swanee Hunt, host of Unconventional Women and head of the Hunt Alternatives Fund, a private foundation in Cambridge, Mass., that backs programs aimed at helping women. Hunt is also a professor at Harvard University, where she directs the Women and Public Policy Program.

It’s also about spreading the word among women who are influential in party politics, Hunt added. “It’s just about a buzz. These women here will be talking about what this day meant to them” to friends and colleagues in the party.

The buzz reached key political players including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who made a cameo appearance at the symposium.

Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Claire McCaskill of Missouri also dropped by, as did Reps. Carolyn Maloney of New York, author of the recently released book “Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated,” and Hilda Solis of California, former Democratic chair of the congressional caucus on women’s issues.

Breakthrough Moment

“This is a breakthrough time for us,” Pelosi said in what amounted to a political pep talk for women in the audience. “It is absolutely essential that women take the responsibility and bring in more women in Congress.”

There are currently 88 women in Congress, representing about 16 percent of the House and Senate.

Pelosi’s was a common refrain.

“This is our time, women’s time,” said Marie Wilson, president of the New York-based White House Project, a nonpartisan advocacy group aimed at electing women to all levels of office.

The feel-good energy wasn’t shared by all drawn to Denver for the Democratic National Convention though.

A small group of Clinton supporters marched through a pedestrian thoroughfare in Denver with signs supporting Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee. “We are 3 million people and we’re going to turn this election,” said Robin Carlson, a resident of Los Angeles who co-founded the group Clintons for McCain.

Female peace activists, meanwhile, did their best to disrupt the symposium.

Clad in their signature pink, protesters affiliated with anti-war group Code Pink, based in Venice, Calif., heckled Pelosi as she addressed the audience.

Escorted out of the convention, Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin said protestors “don’t want to shout and disrupt” the events but they have not been able to arrange a meeting with Pelosi. “She has shut us out for years now.”

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

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