In the News 2008
Inter Press Service

Women Take the Platform at Dem Convention


WASHINGTON, Aug 27 (IPS) – From the party platform ratified by delegates between speeches Monday, to primetime, headlining speeches by two heavy hitters in the election — Sen. Hillary Clinton and first-lady hopeful Michelle Obama — the initial two days of the Democratic National Convention were dominated by women.After a bruising primary season against Clinton, reaching out to women will be particularly important for soon-to-be anointed Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama.

Michelle Obama’s speech at the convention on Monday night in Denver, Colorado portrayed her very strongly in traditional gender roles — she introduced herself to a public that doesn’t know her very well as a “sister”, “wife”, “mother”, and “daughter”.

The nominating process left the Democratic electorate effectively split, and many of the 18 million who voted for Clinton have been slow to wholeheartedly embrace Obama.

In a peace offering to those supporters, the Democratic Party Platform acknowledged Clinton’s historic run — the first woman to win a primary — and the voters that propelled it by using Clinton’s own language to refer to them: “…[O]ur party is proud that we have put 18 million cracks in the highest glass ceiling.”

“The draft of the Democratic Party platform, principally written by Obama’s Senate policy director, the estimable Karen Kornbluh, is a remarkably feminist document, one befitting of a political party that, this year, came exceedingly close to nominating a woman,” wrote Dana Goldstein on TAPPED, the blog of the liberal magazine The American Prospect.

The party platform laid out aggressive stances on many women’s rights issues, and, in line with a Democratic shift to emphasise the troubled U.S. economy — a top concern for many voters — much of the language about women was couched in economic terms.

“We know that when America extends its promise to women, the result is increased opportunity for families, communities, and aspiring people everywhere,” read the platform, vowing to support a number of bills that buttress women’s rights in the workplace, such as equal access to jobs and equal pay. The platform noted that in the U.S., “women still earn 76 cents for every dollar that a man earns.”

The platform also notably reaffirmed support for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) — an oft-proposed but unratified amendment to the constitution that unequivocally outlaws any discrimination based on sex. The ERA has been a hallmark of Democratic platforms for decades, but was dropped by, as Goldstein put it, “lily-livered” Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry in his 2004 run for the White House.

But the 2008 Democratic platform would not be without controversies of its own regarding women’s rights. Reproductive rights, a consistent political hot-button issue, were at the top of the list of reactions to the party platform.

Kerry’s moderated 2004 platform included a plank stating that the party sought to keep abortion legal, but make it “rare”, a formulation of the Pres. Bill Clinton era. The word “rare” was eliminated from the 2008 platform.

“… [T]he Democratic Party has revealed that it thinks people of goodwill cannot believe abortion is wrong. It has effectively stated: pro-life Americans need not apply to the Democratic Party,” wrote Daniel Allott in the conservative magazine, The American Spectator. “Could it be that the Democratic Party’s abortion position has become even more extreme than that of the most pro-abortion presidential candidate ever?”

“Pro-abortion” advocates, however, dispute that characterisation and even the moniker itself — most prefer the term “pro-choice, a nuance reflected in the language of the platform.

While the three paragraphs (of over 50 pages of the platform) under the heading of “Choice” does state that the party “strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay,” it also goes on to include language that supports so-called “abortion reduction” — the notion of policies such as birth control or family planning that mildly discourage abortion or subvert need for them.

The platform also states, “The Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman’s decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programmes for pre- and post-natal health care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programmes.”

Many pro-choice groups lauded the platform despite the language changes.

“The Democratic platform shows that we need to reduce the need for abortion. This has always been part of the pro-choice movement,” Jon O’Brien, the president of the pro-choice lobby Catholics for Choice (CFC), told IPS.

“The antiabortion movement [is not] interested in giving women rights; they’re interested in taking them away,” he said. “What’s important is that women have more choices. But keeping abortion safe and legal is as important today as it was in the past.”

Dana Goldstein of TAPPER, after laying out the language from 2004 and 2008 in her blog post, also failed to see a significant shift.

“I simply don’t see this as a modification of the party’s pro-choice stance. Rather, it’s a strengthening of that position,” Goldstein wrote.

“The language in this platform reaffirms, in the strongest of terms, the Democratic Party’s solid commitment to a woman’s right to choose as defined by Roe v. Wade,” Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a statement.

But many saw the new language as a shift towards abortion-reduction as a compromise, centrist position to pull in votes that are opposed to abortion. With much of the opposition to abortion led by religious movements, some see the move as a way to assuage the fears of evangelical and other so-called “values voters” whom Obama has been aggressively courting by promoting his own faith and commitment to faith-based programmes.

Particularly, the language is seen as appeal to anti-abortion Catholics. Catholics make up about a quarter of the electorate, and are seen as a crucial swing-vote constituency. They are also a demographic in which Clinton did significantly better than Obama in the primary races.

Other appeals to Catholics include the choice of Sen. Joe Biden as a ticket-mate and an invitation to Sen. Bob Casey, Jr., to address the convention. Both men are Catholic.

Casey’s father, then the governor of Pennsylvania, was allegedly barred from speaking at the 1992 Democratic Convention because of his anti-abortion stance.

The choice of Biden also could represent a middle ground on the abortion issue. Michael Sean Winters at Slate Magazine wrote that “Biden is pro-choice but not rigidly so,” and noted that NARAL, while lauding the choice, had given Biden a 36 percent rating and called his record “mixed”.

“Joe Biden is a good example of the type of Catholic voters that are out there,” O’Brien told IPS. He cited a recent CFC poll that placed abortion as a low priority for Catholic voters.

O’Brien said that Biden, like the respondents in the poll, cares about the same issues as other non-Catholic voters, such as the economy and the war in Iraq, and “doesn’t hold to what the bishops say about abortion.”

This article originally appeared in Inter Press Service on 27 August 2008.

Catholics for Choice