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Women, Women, Everywhere
Does It Make A Difference?

by Jo Freeman

Women were "in" at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles last month.  So far "in" that they were almost hidden in plain sight.
      As was true for Republican women, it was the 1972 convention that began Democratic women's contemporary charge for power and recognition in their party.  As was also true at the 2000 Republican convention, there were no major fights over women or issues of particular concern to women, or even a few voices raised in alarm.  But unlike Republicans, Democratic women are quiet because they have won pretty much everything they demanded in 1972, and more.
     What they want now is to keep their party in power and that means keeping the peace.
      In 1968 neither women, nor "sex", nor topics remotely identifiable as "women's issues" were in the Democratic Party's platform.  Women were only 13 percent of the delegates.  The program for women put together by the National Committee Women's Division meant entertainment for delegates' wives.
      Women were an organized and vocal presence at the 1972 Democratic convention, arguing over abortion, putting the Equal Rights Amendment back into their party Platform (where it had been from 1944 to 1956), and demanding equal numbers of delegates.
      These fights continued to 1984, when Democratic nominee Walter Mondale chose New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate.  By then the Democrats required the states to send equal numbers of men and women as delegates, and put into the party platform most of what women wanted, at least on issues on which there was an identifiable feminist position.
      Since then women have acted as insiders, maneuvering rather than demanding, and accepting compromises for the sake of party unity.  "Welfare reform" in 1996 was one of these.  Feminists along with a lot of other Democrats didn't like retrenchment in programs which would leave many women vulnerable, but they swallowed it with minimal complaint to keep the Republicans at bay.
     Every Democratic convention since 1976 has had daily meetings of women, whether delegates or not.  Initially these caucuses debated platform issues, and often heard speeches from the winning (and losing) candidates for the Democratic nomination.  However, at the last few conventions the caucus meetings have been rallies for the party's nominee, who has only occasionally appeared personally.
      The 2000 women's caucus heard from Hillary Clinton on Monday, and Tipper Gore and Hadassah Lieberman on Thursday, but not their husbands.  Tuesday featured issues panels and Wednesday was devoted "getting out your message."   Only two to five hundred people attended each days' caucus, far short of the two thousand that sometimes attended in the past.  However, the available hotel ballrooms were smaller than usual and the caucus meetings were not widely publicized, so knowledge rather than interest may have limited attendance.
     This time the women's caucus was run by the Women's Leadership Forum, founded in 1993, and currently headed by Susan Turnbull. She MCed the meetings.  At these, the campaign message to women was clear: Your right to choose (to have an abortion) is at stake.  Up to four Supreme Court justices may be appointed by the next President, and if the Republicans choose the justices, women's right to choose may be lost. "It's the Supreme Court, stupid" was printed on plastic bags handed out to every attendee, as were buttons saying "which 9 next time?"
      Caucus meetings of interest groups are common to the Democratic convention, but rare at the Republicans'.  Nine different Democratic interest groups met at two different hotels. In addition, some labor unions (e.g. AFSCME) also had meetings, though they weren't listed among the caucuses.  While I could only sample a few of these, my impression is that they were all rallies for the campaign, not forums for debate.  The women's caucus had the largest overall attendance.
     The "new" thing this year was corporate sponsorship. Corporations may have financed meetings in the past, but they advertised it this time.  The sponsors of each days women's caucus were publicly announced.  Their signs were on the stage and promos passed out to the audience, separately and in goodie bags.  At least two sponsors had speakers on the panels, to talk about why they were for women.
     In addition,  there were quite a few "tributes" to Democratic women, also held by economic interests.  Although most were by "invitation" and some cost money, receptivity to the press varied. The UAW and GM "team" sponsored seven events at a local studio, including one for women candidates.  They welcomed my assistant and myself with open arms and gave us red carpet treatment.  At another studio "Tribute to Women House Members" sponsored by Chase Bank and Dreamworks we were told to wait out in the hot sun for an hour; if there was room we might be allowed in.  We left.  At a Women of Distinction Brunch by the California lobbying firm of Rose and Kendall, Inc. (women run) we were told that press was not welcome, but we were; hide the camera and press tags and enjoy.  We did.
      There were more events for and by women than any one (or two) persons could attend; sponsored by interest groups, organizations, corporations and unions.  Nor were the women all white; Asian, African-American and Latino women were prominently present, and on the podium.
     However, out-front feminists were only in the audience. Multi-issue groups such as NOW held no functions, led no marches, and made no speeches.  Women's "interests" were represented by NARAL, Planned Parenthood, the American Nurses Association, Voters for Choice, Emily's List and the National Breast Cancer Coalition.
     The convention program was also full of women; if not half of the 247 speakers, at least a third. 
     The Democratic platform was passed so quickly that no one noticed.  Drafted by the winning campaign, it's presented to the Platform Committee which can modify it or file minority reports. Since Committee meetings are held well before the convention and in different cities, its work is seldom publicized.  This time it was just a pretty booklet put on delegate chairs on Monday.
     Within its words, women held their own.  The Democrats "support contraceptive research, family planning, comprehensive family life education, and policies that support healthy childbearing."  They decry the refusal of the Republican Senate to fill vacancies in the federal bench "especially [of] women and minorities."
     Unlike the 1996 draft, that written in 2000 did not leave out support for the Equal Rights Amendment.  The final Platform also declared Democrats are "committed to ensuring full equality for women and to vigorously enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act."  It demanded that "the United States Congress pass the Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination Against Women which has been consistently blocked by the Republican Senate."
     Among other proposals aimed at women were: combat discrimination against female entrepreneurs, especially in federal procurement; strengthen the unemployment compensation system; treat low-wage workers in part-time positions with dignity and fairness; re-enact the Violence Against Women Act (recently voided by the Supreme Court); stop domestic violence; pass laws providing extra punishment for hate crimes "based on gender, disability or sexual orientation;" provide "tougher penalties against all sex offenders;" and "end discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, age, ethnicity, disability, and sexual orientation."
     Women were mentioned in the foreign policy proposals as well, including those addressing "global epidemics" and "societies that are devastated by war, disease and poverty."  Foreign investment "must be more targeted toward women" and the "the scourge of child labor" ended.
     Outside the Democratic convention, a couple thousand protesters spent the week trying to get attention for their issues. There were several companion conventions.  In addition to the well-publicized "shadow" convention, there was a homeless convention, a "people's" convention, a welfare mothers convention, and an anarchists conference.
     Instead of the usual big march on Sunday before the official convention, there were many marches, every day, organized from the "convergence center" a mile away from the Democratic meeting ground.  There, several hundred protesters of all ages came to make puppets, paint signs, confer, and get instruction on their legal rights.  Multiple groups and multiple themes made it hard to grasp what brought them together, but the protesters proclaimed a distaste for corporations and the impact of corporations on public life.
     Thus the protesters bit, or nibbled, the hand that fed the Democrats.  But they did it with style and pizzazz, and unlike the tone of their compatriots at the Republican convention, without hostility and major disruption.  Just 194 were arrested (compared to 391 in Philly), and a lot of those didn't intend to be arrested but were in the wrong place when police changed the rules of engagement.
     As in Philadelphia, Los Angeles prepared for the demonstrators with a massive police presence, estimated to cost 1.5 million dollars a day.  Vacations were canceled, officers put on 12 hour shifts, and 2,700 Highway Patrol officers brought in to supplement the LAPD.  Sheriff deputies personally scrutinized everyone who got on a delegate bus.  I tried to ride these busses twice; one was too full; the second time I was told the press weren't allowed on.
     Despite their pervasiveness, LA drivers were at their worst. I saw more dangerous traffic offenses committed in four days than I normally see in four months in NYC.  When I asked the cops who also saw these why they did nothing, they said it wasn't their priority right now.  Downtown LA was a dangerous place to be during the Democratic Convention, but not because of the protesters, or the Democrats.

Photo: Democratic politicians Hillary Clinton and Ann Richards, the former Texas governor, at L.A.'s Democratic convention. Photo by Jo Freeman

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