Ellen Malcolm

(WOMENSENEWS)–Even as jubilation among Democratic voters was still erupting after Sen. Barack Obama’s historic presidential victory, women’s groups began looking ahead to what comes next and how to get there.

From fixing the domestic health-care system and the economy, to making child care more accessible to working mothers, to rescinding the so-called global gag rule that cuts off foreign aid to groups that provide abortion or counseling, or even lobby for changes in abortion laws, women’s groups started exercising the type of grassroots activism that political analysts say helped bring the Democrats to power on Tuesday.

Obama’s sweeping win was hailed by pro-choice political action committee EMILY’s List and other organizations as a women’s triumph because their votes clinched the victory for Democrats.

In places like New Hampshire, where former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, handily beat Republican incumbent Sen. John Sununu, women made the difference, said analysts from Washington-based EMILY’s List in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.

New Hampshire also elected three new women to its state Senate. Thirteen of 24 seats are now held by women, making it the first legislative chamber in the nation to have a female majority.

“How did Obama win New Hampshire? He won it with women. Sixty-one percent of women supported Barack Obama, 38 percent McCain,” said Maren Hesla, who directed an EMILY’s List initiative to get women to the polls. Given that men in the state were divided evenly between Obama and McCain, with 49 percent each, “the complete margin of victory in New Hampshire . . . came from women.”

Decisive Gender Gap

The gender voting gap contributed to Obama’s victory, according to an exit poll analysis from the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Nationally, 56 percent of women voted for Obama and 43 percent for McCain forming a seven-point gender gap.

Among white women, 46 percent voted for Obama, compared to 41 percent of white men, according to the center. Ninety-six percent of African American women voted for Obama, one percentage point higher than black men. Among Hispanic voters the gender gap was four points, with 68 percent of Latinas for Obama and 64 percent of Latino men for Obama.

Byllye Avery

Unmarried women, however, were trumpeted as a decisive demographic group in Obama’s victory by Women’s Voices, Women Vote, a nonpartisan Washington group that promotes single women’s involvement in elections. According to its analysis, unmarried women with children voted 3-to-1 in favor of Obama. Unmarried women without children voted 69 percent for Obama and 31 percent for McCain.

The new Obama administration, aware of where its votes came from, and a Democrat-controlled Congress will be paying close attention to issues affecting women, EMILY’s List president Ellen Malcolm predicted.

“They understand that it was women who really demanded change and they also know that they’re going to deliver for those women,” said Malcolm, pointing out that female voters who helped sweep women into office in 1992–the Year of the Woman, when female candidates made significant gains in Congress–stayed home dissatisfied in 1994, resulting in electoral losses for the Democrats.

Grabbing the Momentum

Nevertheless, in a Cambridge, Mass., forum sponsored by the Center for New Words, a Cambridge group that works to amplify women’s voices through writing and the media, the talk centered just as much on what women can do to keep the impetus going as it did on what an Obama administration can do for women.

Child care, the economy, health care and reproductive rights were cited as major issues to address. About 50 people attended the live forum, while nearly triple that number followed a Webcast by logging in to one of about half a dozen feminist blogs, said organizer Jaclyn Friedman, the center’s program director.

“I think our work is just beginning, and I think people need to keep plugged in,” said panelist Byllye Avery, founder of the Washington-based National Black Women’s Health Imperative. “We need to figure out how we’re going to stay connected and build on this momentum. The work has just started, and I think we need to not waste time.”

Avery emphasized the importance of coalitions in moving agendas forward. “You get a whole lot more done,” she said. “The work is hard, is going to last a long time. That’s the one thing we need to realize is that we all need each other.”

Paula Rayman, founding director of the Radcliffe Public Policy Center at Harvard University, cited immigration, largely absent from the campaign, as a “critical women’s issue,” given that the work of female immigrants is undervalued, particularly in the caregiving industry. She said immigrant workers need to be unionized and immigration policy should be linked to trade policy. “I would hold everybody’s feet to the fire on this one.”

Rayman said she felt not only exuberant but also sober.

“I think we have to be very realistic at this moment as to what a single individual can do in his role,” she said. “A lot depends on how we stay together in the movement.”

Women’s Groups Embrace Victory

Reproductive rights groups wasted no time in calling on Obama to address women’s health issues and rescind the global gag rule, which they criticize for tying the hands of health providers in the developing world over abortion issues and hampering their ability to provide family planning services. The gag rule was reinstated by President George W. Bush immediately after he took office in 2001.

Ipas, a reproductive-rights group based in Chapel Hill, N.C., that sponsors training in safe abortion techniques, urged Obama to become a “global leader for women’s rights” and called on the new administration to “take early action to rescind the global gag rule, eliminate abortion funding bans and meet our international commitments to protect women’s health,” the group said in a statement Thursday.

“More than 500,000 women have died from unsafe abortion during the eight-year tenure of the Bush administration because they have not had access to comprehensive reproductive health care,” said Ipas president and CEO Elizabeth Maguire. “President-elect Obama has an opportunity–and we believe the passion and commitment–to make a huge difference for women’s reproductive health and rights.”

The New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights said in a press statement that the new government needs to “nominate federal judges who understand that reproductive health is a matter of fundamental rights, enact U.S. policies driven by science and not ideology, and promote reproductive health and rights at the United Nations and in foreign aid programs.”

Nancy Keenan, president of Washington-based NARAL Pro-Choice America, called Obama’s victory in the presidential race a historic win for women. “We look forward to working with our new pro-choice president in protecting women’s health and privacy.”

Madre, the international women’s rights group based in New York, also hailed the Obama victory while saying it would hold his administration accountable to the highest standards of international law and human rights.

“This victory is not the end of a historic struggle,” the group said in a press statement. “It is a place to catch our breath and celebrate and keep right on going.”

Freelance journalist Theresa Braine recently relocated to New York City after seven years reporting from Mexico.

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