DIRTY DANCING: It was another two-party tango, and feminists did not lead

DIRTY DANCING: It was another two-party tango, and feminists did not lead

by Jennifer Gonnerman

“WHEN WOMEN VOTE, WOMEN WIN.” THAT’S THE slogan on the buttons EMILY’s List was handing out in the months leading up to the presidential election. And unlike 1994, this time women were a clear political force. Bill Clinton could not have won reelection without them. While men were split evenly between Clinton and Bob Dole, close to 55 percent of women voters cast ballots for Clinton. Whether this means that all “Women Win” – or that the Republican-controlled Congress will be any more responsive to women’s issues – is not entirely clear.

Among the issues at the forefront of this year’s campaign were two that affect millions of women: abortion and welfare. Each of these hot-potato issues threatened to divide one of the two major political parties, prompting leaders of both to battle, broker deals, and compromise. Nowhere was this more apparent than at last summer’s political conventions. The Republicans shoved aside the issue of abortion after agreeing to an unofficial so-called tolerance plank while the Democrats forbade dissent on Clinton’s decision to end federal entitlement to welfare.

While most female politicians
at both conventions steered
clear of their party’s taboo
issue, some went even further
– doing damage control for
their presidential nominee.

As critical women’s issues were ignored, almost all the women in the best positions to fight back – Congress’s 56 female members and the country’s one female governor – stayed silent. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton transformed herself into an all-American mom, tackling only traditionally feminine issues like child-rearing. And the most high-profile feminist activists – including Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug – encouraged women to vote for Clinton. This turn of events posed a serious challenge to an idea once fueling political feminism: that women with political clout would rise above the deal-making and compromising that defines traditional politics and put women’s interests first.

A STANDING-ROOM-ONLY CROWD OF NEARLY 2,000 whooped and hollered as the First Lady was introduced at the Democratic convention’s biggest event for women, the Women’s Leadership Forum. Standing on a stage in front of the Chicago Hyatt Regency’s Grand Ballroom, Hillary Clinton rattled off her husband’s achievements from the previous week, including signing bills to increase the minimum wage and reform health insurance. Noticeably absent from Hillary’s list, however, was the other major piece of legislation her husband signed that same week: a welfare bill that Clinton’s own Department of Health and Human Services estimated will force a million children into poverty.

Hillary was not the only woman who refused to talk about welfare. Onstage alongside her were the U.S. Senate’s five Democratic women: Carol Mosley-Braun of Illinois, Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski, Patty Murray of Washington, and California’s Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. None uttered the word “welfare.” Though all except Mikulski voted against the final version of the bill, none bothered to explain why.

The irony of the senators’ silence is that it took place at the Women’s Leadership Forum, an event marking a crowning moment for political feminism. The Forum’s cosponsor, EMILY’s List, is one of the nation’s most powerful political action committees. Supporting only pro-choice Democratic women, EMILY’s List now gives away more money than the National Rifle Association. This fundraising prowess earned the 11-year-old women’s group a seat at the table during Clinton’s reelection campaign. Ellen Malcolm, EMILY’s List founder, proudly says, “For the first time in history, a woman’s organization is working in partnership with the Democratic party.”

The more influence EMILY’s List wields within the Democratic party, the less willing its leaders are to tackle issues that threaten to rip apart the party’s unity – even at an event they themselves organized. So now even sisterhood has to be scripted. As long as no one brought up the welfare bill – and the debates over class and race that it provokes – the event’s spirit of feminist unity remained intact.

Earlier that same day, organizers of the convention’s daily Women’s Caucus meetings had employed a different strategy to ensure there were no angry feminist disruptions. They banned the Getting It Gazette, a broadsheet produced by a handful of feminist journalists, which slammed Clinton’s decision to sign the welfare bill. Printed on shocking pink paper, the first issue of the Gazette featured a headline screaming: “What Are You Going To Do About That BILL, Bill?”

Volunteers handed out copies of the broadsheet to the legions of politicians, activists, lobbyists, and delegates who flocked to the Women’s Caucus meetings. But young women stationed at the ballroom doors ordered them to toss the Gazette in the garbage before entering. Explained one such worker: “I think these are protest sheets and [the convention organizers] are worried people will come running in and wave them.”

TWO WEEKS EARLIER, HUNDREDS OF WOMEN IN WELLtailored suits had nibbled on cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks, and bits of honeydew melon at the Republican convention’s biggest pro-choice event, a reception at San Diego’s Wyndham Emerald Plaza. The GOP’s ultraright heavyweights had just succeeded in keeping a socalled tolerance plank out of the official Republican platform. Now convention organizers were tiptoeing around this volatile issue by banning mention of the A-word inside the convention hall.

At the hotel reception, wild cheers greeted the speakers whose pro-choice views had cost them their speaking spots: Governor Pete Wilson of California and Massachusetts Governor William Weld. The stakes are high at a political convention and the reward for obeying party leadership is substantial. So most of the female politicians from both parties played along, doing all they could to advance their own careers. As they did so, the idea that women are above backroom deal-making and politics-as-usual came to seem less a guiding feminist principle than a naive, romantic illusion.

When Dole picked pro-choice Congresswoman Susan Molinari (R-NY) to be the convention’s keynote speaker, she immediately promised not to bring up abortion. When Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), who claims to be pro-choice, got behind the convention podium, she too did not mention the subject. This sort of political maneuvering is, of course, not limited to the Republicans. After Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY), chair of the Congressional Women’s Caucus, voted in favor of the welfare legislation, Clinton’s camp rewarded her with not one but two speaking slots.

While most female politicians at both conventions steered clear of their party’s taboo issue, some went even further – doing damage control for their presidential nominee. The most prominent of these women was pro-choice Governor Christine Todd Whitman (R-NJ). When convention organizers bumped Weld and Wilson from the speaking schedule, Whitman insisted on CNN that this decision had nothing to do with their pro-choice stance. Organizers had already given Whitman the coveted role of temporary cochair of the convention; she did not jeopardize her political future by speaking up about abortion.

Similarly, during the Democratic convention, Congresswoman Barbara Kennelly (D-CT) defended Clinton’s decision to sign the welfare bill. She even urged attendees at a Women’s Caucus meeting: “Stand up and back your President.” The applause was only lukewarm. But Kennelly already had her reward. Several weeks earlier, Clinton’s team had given her the prestigious post of platform committee cochair. Spinning for Clinton was merely the price.

At the conventions, some female politicians gambled their political future for their feminist principles – like Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) in the abortion battle. Others, like Whitman, did not. These distinctions between prochoice, female politicians are glossed over by many feminist political groups that apply only an abortion litmus test to decide which candidates to support. The conventions revealed the shortcomings of such a system. (NOW seems to agree and has decided to take a closer look at candidates’ record on welfare.)

Since it is unlikely there will ever be a floor vote in Congress on whether abortion should be legal, what really matters is how hard pro-choice politicians, when pushed, are willing to fight. And groups like EMILY’s List and the Women’s Campaign Fund could not claim to have been betrayed by the Democratic congresswomen who failed to speak out at the conventions against the punitive welfare bill, since they require no welfare litmus test to win an endorsement.

FEMALE POLITICIANS INSIDE BOTH SAN DlEGO AND CHICAgo managed to ignore hot-button women’s issues and not incur the wrath of feminists outside. In San Diego, pro-choice Republicans’ most visible protest involved having a handful of sailboats – painted with the slogan “Yank the Plank” – float tepidly by the convention hall. In fact, pro-choice Republicans gave up the fight before the convention even started. At a reception the day before the convention, women waved yellow handkerchiefs printed with the “Yank the Plank” slogan; underneath, the women had already scribbled “In 2000.”

Whitman and Molinari – both of whom could have been expected to speak at such an event – did not even bother to show up. But the GOP women and feminist activists expressed no anger at these politicians for abandoning the convention’s abortion battle once it heated up. Eager to keep wielding whatever influence they have within the GOP, the pro-choice activists never took their plank fight into San Diego’s streets.

In Chicago, if the Democrats had even hinted at the possibility of weakening their platform’s pro-choice plank, feminists would have flooded Chicago’s streets. But this year’s issue was welfare, and no noisy groups of feminists stomped their sneakers on the sidewalk demanding that Clinton ease the impact of the welfare bill he had just signed.

There was some criticism of Clinton’s welfare bill at a press conference with Congresswoman Maxine Waters and feminist luminaries Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, and Eleanor Smeal, among others. But feminist activists spent most of the time telling women: You may be mad at Clinton, but you should still vote for him.

In the weeks before the convention, some feminists had been making angry noises about Clinton’s decision to sign the welfare bill. Urging Clinton to veto it, NOW launched a “Hungry for Justice” campaign August 1. President Patricia Ireland, joined by other NOW officers and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, began a fast, which ended three weeks later when Clinton signed.

“By the time that the Democratic National Convention rolled around, the women’s rights supporters and the feminists in the party had been pretty much reined in or had reined themselves in,” says Ireland. “People were getting in line. It was not a place where people were going to mount demonstrations or speak angry words.” At the convention, Ireland says, she found herself besieged by Clinton supporters – fundraisers, consultants – begging her to keep quiet. “There was a real strategy to try to keep the lid on this.”

In exchange for staying silent, feminist heavyweights – including Steinem and Feminist Majority founder Smeal – received a meeting with Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. Behind closed doors, they urged Shalala to protect domestic violence victims from the welfare bill’s punitive measures. “Our demonstrations before the convention made them very much want to mollify us,” Ireland says. So it was that in early October, Clinton directed states to put policies in place softening the bill’s impact on victims of domestic violence.

“Maybe it’s quid pro quo,” admits Pat Reuss, executive director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, who attended the Shalala meeting. “If we don’t make a horrible stink, then they’ll see if they can actually do what we want.” In one of the convention’s few hints of feminist dissent, Steinem said, “As a women’s movement and as a movement for social justice, we have not done our job. We have yet to forge a coalition of women on welfare, women with two jobs, and homemakers.”

FOUR YEARS EARLIER, THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION WAS in New York City and feminist politicians were endorsing Clinton with considerably more enthusiasm. Yet outside, thousands of activists protesting violence against women – organized by members of the Women’s Action Coalition – took to the streets, marching down Broadway toward Madison Square Garden. There they massed for one of the city’s largest feminist rallies in recent memory. A steady stream of female politicians – perhaps not wanting to be left out, perhaps finding the huge crowd irresistible – left their seats inside the hall to climb up on a rickety stage packed with grassroots activists and movement notables, just about everyone from Shere Hite to Rep. Patricia Schroeder. That election year, loud, feminist voices outside the convention hall strengthened the resolve of female politicians and top-level activists inside to, at least temporarily, do the right thing.

Jennifer Gonnerman is a political reporter for The Village Voice. She has also written for Ms., Glamour, The New York Observer, Spin, and New York. In the fall ON THE ISSUES, she reported on Human Life International.