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Category: Politics

Obama and Women Leaders Get Down to Business

| August 8, 2008

Barack Obama got a lot of advice from more than 30 leaders of national women’s groups when he met with them in late July.

Some columnists have written caustically about the need for Obama to pacify angry feminists who had backed Hillary Clinton.

That’s not what this meeting was about. There was no demand for favors, in exchange for bringing Clinton supporters to Obama. This was no showdown meeting, let alone a shouting match between a stereotypical angry feminist and the cool Democratic nominee.

This was more a sober strategy session between savvy political actors mostly already on the same page—but facing many unpredictable hurdles ahead as the general election heats up.

Everyone in the room knew how high the stakes are, after significant erosion of women’s rights under President Bush and now, in the waning months of his presidency, an executive branch maneuver that could define contraception as abortion, greatly reducing its availability.

There are real concerns by feminist leaders about getting their members on board for Obama, in the wake of the loss to him by Hillary Clinton, even given dire warnings about the positions held by the presumed Republican nominee, John McCain.

The fact of the meeting in itself cleared the air. Earlier in July, Obama had talked at some length with Kim Gandy, the president of the National Organization for Women, on the eve of the NOW convention. An open-ended discussion with leaders of feminist groups—large and small, including African American, Asian and Latina groups—was the next step in rebuilding bridges and opening new dialogue.

Obama came with a coterie of campaign officials but also took notes himself. He started out raising four points:

  • the economic outlook is grim and those most affected are women;
  • many women’s groups came of age in the 1960s and 1970s and won major victories, but, now, a new generation of women sees a chance to get involved;
  • the next appointments to the Supreme Court will be crucial in preserving many women’s rights gains, including the lynchpin reproductive rights ruling, RoeWade;
  • and an entire array of issues originally sought by women—equal pay, expanding family leave, support for caregivers and others—are no longer women’s issues “but affect everybody.”

E. Faye Williams, head of the National Congress of Black Women, was “pleasantly surprised”—not by what Obama said but by the reception he got and the nuts-and-bolts interaction with feminist leaders on issues.

“There was not even a hint of confrontation,” she said. “The tone was how can we help you and how can you help us in working with our members.”

She had been an early Obama supporter, which led to alienation with many feminist colleagues backing Clinton. “We suspended friendships. We were so passionate about this race.”

She had been apprehensive about how the meeting would go with Obama but, afterward, said, “it was all I had been hoping for….I breathed a big sigh of relief.”

Alice Cohan of the Feminist Majority said the challenge is to dramatize the stark differences between McCain and Obama on women’s rights issues. “It is very clear how terrible McCain is on women’s rights. Compare that to Obama who is strong on almost the whole range of women’s issues. But that has to become visible, salient.”

Obama has to get at least 60 percent of the votes of women to win, she predicted.

Ellie Smeal, the head of Feminist Majority, strongly recommended mounting a vigorous grass roots campaign for women, with women present on the ground in every key contested district, not just at campaign headquarters or even a regional level. Obama, who began his professional life as a grass roots organizer, nodded and listened and took more notes.

Barbara Kennelly, a former Connecticut congresswoman who now presides over the National Committee to Preserve Social Security, cautioned Obama to keep to a broad-strokes commitment to save Social Security rather than “get down in the weeds” with a discussion of payroll tax caps or other specifics that can easily be distorted or misstated.

Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood praised Obama’s record on reproductive rights, as did Nancy Keenan of NARAL, whose endorsement of Obama before the primaries ended caused grass roots consternation in some NARAL chapters.

One health care advisor, not at the meeting, said Obama should follow the advice Kennelly gave regarding Social Security on abortion issues as well. He should stay with the broad commitment to protect Roe and provide broad access to reproductive services and not tackle the intricacies of abortion, including the medical necessity in isolated cases for a third-trimester abortion, which tripped him up earlier this summer.

Delores Huerta, the venerable farm workers activist who now heads her own California-based foundation, was the only person to broach the painful subject of Clinton supporters and the hurt many of them feel. She suggested one way to ease that could be to put Clinton on his ticket as vice president. He nodded, took notes—and there was no follow-up question from other leaders.

“And she asked it in the nicest way. She said it not as an accusation but said that, speaking for her people, ‘we are terribly heartbroken’ and putting Clinton on the ticket would help with the healing,” recalled Susan Scanlon, head of the National Council of Women’s Organizations.

Scanlon told Obama that, after a running mate has been chosen, NCWO hoped the Obama campaign would participate in a campaign forum on women’s issues.

“We’ve been turned down flat by McCain,” Scanlon said, and the Obama campaign had equivocated. NCWO is working with Lifetime TV on jointly sponsoring a forum where the candidates—or surrogates—would answer questions from heads of women’s groups on key issues.

Overall, Scanlon said she thought that “people came away impressed and ready to go to work.” Cohan agreed: “His presentation was very strong, the issues he talked about were very important and he really wanted to listen to what people said.”