The Women's Revolution at the DNC
If Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan think they’re going to power their way into the White House, they clearly weren’t in the room when the Women’s Caucus of the Democratic National Committee met the opening day of the convention. If the two-hour event is any sign, it looks like the male GOP candidates have a revolution on their hands.
“Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!” the crowd roared at one point, standing up and clapping. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius had just said, “The president, and I’m referring to Barack Obama, President Obama is going to be rehired this fall.”
For two hours, a group of the most high-profile women in Democratic politics took turns praising the president and assailing the GOP’s record on women. With all the cheering and clapping, I felt like I was more at a raucous church service than a dry political meeting. You could probably hear the hollering a few blocks down College Street at the Time Warner Center, where women’s equal pay advocate Lilly Ledbetter and veteran and House of Representatives candidate Tammy Duckworth and First Lady Michelle Obama would be speaking later that night.
The speakers ran from trusted Obama adviser and family friend Valerie Jarrett to Michigan Senator Amy Klobuchar to DNC chair and Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. And they had three messages for the mostly female audience (although I did spot at least a few dozen enthusiastic men): they needed to protect women’s health care so that women can advance economically; they needed to engage in “truth-telling” about the Republicans’ backward agenda for women; and they had 63 days to get out the vote.
“We must unleash the power of women,” said former House speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“This election is about women,” said Stephanie Schirock the president of Emily’s List, an organization devoted to helping women run for political office, to a burst of applause. “It is about women voters around this country who need to get mobilized and educated, explain the contrast between the Republican and Democratic party. Did I mention Todd Akin?”
The mere mention of the notorious Missouri congressman's name elicited some boos and groans from the audience. And it was hard not to see why. There was a sense in the packed ballroom that history was repeating itself, and that the advances women had achieved in controlling their reproductive lives and being able to afford health care were now on the line. Several speakers denounced the Republican platform with its outright ban of abortion and vow to overturn Roe v. Wade.
The Democratic platform, in contrast, had been released the night before to delegates and the press. Its support for preventive health, a woman’s right to choose, sex education, and contraception coverage could hardly have been more stark.
But Romney’s vow to overturn Obamacare on Day One also got attention. In a nod to the battle with Republicans over the law, Klobachar told a funny anecdote. “This is my favorite story of all time,” she said. Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan was discussing the bill when a Republican senator from Arizona remarked that he didn’t know why maternity care was on the list of benefits because he’d never use it. “Debbie Stabenow looked across the table at him and said, ‘I bet your mother did!”
“This is about your mothers and our sisters and our daughters,” Klobachar went on, turning serious. “When you leave this week, when you get home, you have to reach out to other women, to independent women and Republican women. You keep your expectations high.”
Then there was longtime Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who drew a huge standing ovation and repeated applause. In a way, the gray-haired political veteran is the memory of not only the Civil Rights movement but also the women’s movement. Brazile was around when Shirley Chisholm was the first African-American woman to run for president. She was there when Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman vice-presidential candidate. Invoking the names of these progressive women leaders and others, Brazile got down to business. “Shake a tail feather!” she urged the crowd in her Southern drawl. Then she led them in a rowdy call and response of “Fire it up!” “Ready to Go!”
Actress Ashley Judd, who seemed shy and less comfortable on stage than she does in film, stressed the need for better sex education and her own devotion to pro-choice. Calling her “my friend,” she then introduced Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards. The audience gave the daughter of late legendary Texas governor Ann Richards a standing ovation.
“It is 2012, and that we are actually arguing over women having the right to birth control in America is absolutely unbelievable,” said Richards. She told a story of a lament she’s been noticing in her travels around the country. “The sign I keep seeing everywhere is, ‘I can’t believe I have to fight this shit again!’”
She singled out the president for his strong support of women and recalled another story. When Republicans demanded that Obama defund Planned Parenthood last summer in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, he refused to back down. “The 3 million women who came to us last year, they are Democrats and Republicans. They need access to affordable health care, and by god this president is going to make sure it does,” Richards said to fierce applause.
Debbie Wasserman Schulz, the Florida congresswoman and tireless mom of three, spoke of her own health care crisis when she found she had breast cancer at age 41. What would she have done if she didn’t have health care coverage? she asked the crowd. It wasn’t just that health reform had benefited her, she noted. It would be there for her two young daughters, who are also at risk of breast cancer, but also for millions of women to come.
“Now, I need to tell you about a group of women in this country,“ she said. “They voted for President Obama in 2008. They’re hanging back right now, my friends. We have got to make sure that every one of those women, in every state in this country, knows that Barack Obama stands with women, and Mitt Romney does not.”
Then the petite, curly-haired power behind the Democratic Party told the audience to reach out to other women, to connect “the personal to the political.” For women who might not remember, it was a signature slogan from the women’s movement of the 1970s.
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