Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority Foundation

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–The last time the National Organization for Women endorsed a presidential candidate in the general election was 1984, the year Democratic nominee Walter Mondale made history when he asked former New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro to run alongside him as vice president.

In the quarter century since then, NOW has endorsed candidates in primary elections, backing New York Sen. Hillary Clinton this year and Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun in 2000. But no general election candidate has met the group’s high standards since 1984 in a general election; at least, not until now.

“It’s very unusual for us to endorse in a presidential election, but this is an unusual election,” NOW president Kim Gandy said at a Sept. 16 news conference in Washington, D.C. “For more than a decade Barack Obama has consistently said ‘yes’ to women’s rights; Sen. McCain has said ‘no.'”

Women’s rights groups’ support for the Democratic ticket goes beyond the top slot; Gandy and other women’s rights leaders fawned over vice presidential nominee Joe Biden, a Democratic senator from Delaware, and rebuked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the first Republican woman to become a vice presidential nominee.

“Women know they need to cast votes based on the policies the candidates set forth, regardless of gender,” said Betsy Clark, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers, a group in Washington, D.C., that lobbies for social workers, more than 80 percent of whom are women.

Palin is a social conservative who opposes same-sex marriage, comprehensive sex education and abortion in all cases except to save the life of the woman; positions that go against stands taken by NOW and other women’s rights groups.

Women’s rights advocates also criticized Palin after news reports revealed that while she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, the town charged sexual assault victims between $300 and $1,200 to cover the cost of their rape kits and forensic exams to collect criminal evidence. Alaska has the highest sexual assault rate in the nation.

Contrasting Veep Picks

Biden, meanwhile, drew cheers from women’s groups at the news conference for his legislative efforts to combat domestic violence and sexual assault.

Biden authored the 1994 Violence Against Woman Act, a landmark law that provided federal funds to help victims of violence prosecute cases and find recovery services, and has championed its reauthorization twice since then.

As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden also held hearings in 1991 into allegations that Clarence Thomas, then a nominee for the Supreme Court, sexually harassed his former employee, Anita Hill. The hearings sparked outrage among female voters and helped bring about the so-called Year of the Woman in 1992, when women nearly doubled their ranks in Congress.

“He has stood there with us on vote after vote,” said Eleanor Smeal, chair of the Feminist Majority political action committee, the political arm of the Feminist Majority Foundation in Arlington, Va. Biden and Obama, she said, represent the strongest women’s rights presidential ticket in U.S. history.

The news conference was meant to shore up support among women, who were shifting to McCain in the wake of his historic appointment of Palin, a working mother of five, including an infant son with Down Syndrome.

A poll released Sept. 9 by the Washington Post showed that Obama had lost his lead and was running about even with McCain largely because he was losing ground among white women. Before the national party conventions, white women favored Obama by eight percentage points; after the GOP convention they gave McCain a 12-point advantage.

The ‘Palin Effect’

But more recent polls suggest the “Palin effect” is wearing off. A poll published Thursday in the New York Times gave Obama a 48-43 percent lead over McCain, about where he was before the conventions.

The poll came after a Sept. 12 episode of “The View,” a daytime television talk show popular with women, where host Barbara Walters chided McCain for calling Palin the “greatest vice presidential candidate” in U.S. history and grilled him over whether she could deliver on her promise to reform government.

Even Republican strategist Karl Rove said enthusiasm over Palin will subside. “Nothing lasts for 60-some-odd days,” Rove told the Associated Press.

Both campaigns are putting new emphasis on attracting female voters, who wield a disproportionate outcome on presidential elections because they vote in higher numbers and more regularly than men.

In a week dubbed “Women’s Week of Action,” Obama’s campaign unveiled on Monday a list of endorsements from hundreds of female leaders including Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and economic experts like former financial reporter Ann Crittenden and Stacey Snider, chair of DreamWorks. The campaign held rallies for women across the country and aired a video forum on women’s issues on Wednesday featuring Clinton and Biden.

McCain Woos Women’s Votes

The activity came on the heels of similar efforts by McCain who, after his interview on “The View,” cooked ribs with celebrity cooking show host Rachel Ray.

McCain also released a television advertisement criticizing Obama’s campaign for sexist treatment of Palin. “How disrespectful,” the narrator charges in the ad.

But other influential women’s groups are lining up behind Palin.

“In this continuing game of ‘gotcha’ journalism and the politics of personal destruction, the mainstream media and celebrity reporters are piling on Sarah Palin,” said Dr. Janice Shaw Crouse, a political commentator for the Concerned Women for America, a social issue advocacy group in Washington, D.C. “The personal attacks have reached unprecedented pettiness and hypocrisy.”

Obama, meanwhile, tried to turn the country’s bad economic news into votes from women, who rate the state of the economy as their top political concern.

“Today many women work to support their families, but are paid just 77 cents to the dollar a man makes,” a narrator states in an Obama ad in battleground states this week. “It’s one more thing John McCain doesn’t get about our economy.”

Women are more vulnerable to economic turmoil because they have less wealth than men and are more likely to live in poverty. They earn less money than men over their lifetimes and are more likely to have low-wage and part-time jobs without benefits. Women are also less likely to have retirement savings accounts; if they do, they tend to have less in them. Moreover, many leave the work force to shoulder caregiving responsibilities.

A poll released last month by the National Women’s Law Center, a think tank that focuses on women’s economic issues in Washington, D.C., indicated that women are more concerned than men about economic instability and rising costs of food and gas.

Among women surveyed, 59 percent said they were concerned about achieving “economic and financial goals over the next five years.” Less than half of male respondents–or 46 percent–said the same.

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

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