White House Battle Hinges on Women

Take a quick poll and ask women in the US how they feel about health care, education, the environment and other domestic issues they struggle with on a daily basis and you will quickly get the feeling that things are not going so well in America. Ask them how they feel about terrorism and the war in Iraq and you might just begin to see visions of John Kerry in the White House, come January.

The average woman may not have data at her fingertips to support her case, but the National Women's Law Centre does. On August 26, the Centre issued its analysis of newly released US Census Bureau information. That data clearly reveals that women were especially hard hit by a sluggish job market as well as cutbacks in health insurance coverage in 2003. The rate of women's poverty shows signs of increasing for the third consecutive year and the jump in child poverty over the past year was the largest in a decade. As women's incomes fell while men's incomes remained stagnant, the wage gap between men and women increased. Health insurance coverage declined even more sharply among women than men.

"Many of the rights and opportunities women have won over the last 84 years [when women got the right to vote] are being threatened by cuts in programmes that women and their families depend on," says Joan Entmacher, the Center's vice-president.

"The current (Bush) Administration proposes cuts in child care funding that enables many women to participate in the workforce, recommends a welfare proposal that would restrict poor women's access to education and training, and plans to restructure Medicaid [health insurance for the poor] in a way that would increase the number of women without health insurance. At the same time, the Administration is proposing even larger tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and corporations."

This reality is not lost on many organizations working together to mount a historically unprecedented mobilization of women voters, who could easily decide the November election. According to Rachel Dobin, deputy political director at the Women's Campaign Fund, a non-partisan political action committee, "Women voters will play a critical role this year. In 2000, women registered and voted in higher numbers than men, and this gender gap favored Democrats. Now women are appalled by our foreign policy and the loss of life in Iraq, but even more importantly, the everyday press of life dominates the day. These issues are where the Democrats are."

Celinda Lake, a principal in Lake, Snell & Perry, a Washington DC-based polling group, agrees that women will make the difference. Women, she says, are 70 per cent more likely than men to be Democrats, and women vote more than men do. This year (2004), a record number of women are expected to vote because of organized efforts to reach them - especially young single women, who are progressive and change-oriented and who traditionally don't vote in large numbers. "These young women could have made the difference in Florida," Lake says, referring to the hairline defeat of Al Gore in that crucial state in the 2000 election. 

The attempt to reach women voters, especially those considered "swing votes" - the undecided or those leaning towards the Democratic candidate - is part of a larger strategy to register and mobilize women across all demographics. Among the organizations coming together to get out the women's vote this year are America Coming Together (ACT), which is mounting a national house-by-house strategy to mobilize grassroots women voters. It claims to have developed the largest voter contact program in US history. It is being joined, among others, by Mothers Opposed to Bush (MOB), the National Organization of Women, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

In an email letter to supporters of the Fund, noted feminist author Gloria Steinem, founder of Voters for Choice, wrote, "The Republican Party...has never been clearer about its intentions to strip away women's basic rights." Noting that Republicans have called for a constitutional ban on abortion and pledged to support only anti-choice judges nominated to the Federal judiciary and the Supreme Court, Steinem slammed the party of George W Bush for wanting to confer personhood on a fertilized ovum, "thus nationalizing women's bodies during all of our childbearing years", and for enforcing the Patriot Act "which requires that the US government have access to all our health records". The letter is intended for wide circulation electronically with a duel objective: fundraising and mobilizing women voters.

But it isn't just "big name" feminists who are mobilizing women. MOB, whose "top priority is protecting the people we love and providing them with a secure foundation", was started in December 2003 by a group of mothers in Annapolis, Maryland. "We share a common belief that the leadership in the White House needs to change," says its website.

Women's Voices, Women Vote is focusing its efforts on getting unmarried young women to vote this year. It is concerned with the 22 million unmarried women who were eligible to vote in 2000 but didn't, and with the 16 million unmarried women who didn't even register to vote that year. Pointing out that 56 per cent of all women not registered to vote are unmarried, and that 46 per cent of all voting-age women are unmarried, it aims to "dramatically increase the political participation of unmarried women through a comprehensive, nationwide registration and get-out-the-vote campaign". 

Their focus is supported by US Census data and a nationwide survey that revealed that unmarried women comprise the largest group of unregistered and non-voting citizens in the US, and that unmarried women overwhelmingly believe that the US is headed in the wrong direction.

Perhaps the most well-known political network helping to elect pro-choice Democratic women to office is EMILY's List ("Early Money Is Like Yeast - it makes the dough rise"). Founded in 1985, it supports women running for office in the US Congress and for state governorship. Its less well-known Republican counterpart, The WISH List (Women in the Senate and House), supports only pro-choice Republican women. 

Both EMILY's List and The WISH List work to recruit, train and support women running for public office. This year, their efforts could see a number of women taking Senate and House seats, which makes Marie Wilson, founder and CEO of The White House Project, very happy. Wilson founded the Project as "a national, non-partisan progressive organization devoted to advancing women's leadership in all spheres." It is sponsoring events in more than a dozen states aimed at leadership training, get-out-the-vote efforts, and educational forums. 

Says Wilson, who formerly headed The Ms Foundation, "When I look at the issues we face, and when I think of the changes we need, I am as convinced as I have ever been that our future depends on the leadership of women - not to replace men, but to transform our options alongside them."   


More by :  Elayne Clift

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