Obama Reaches Out to Women

With Super Tuesday looming large, February 2nd was a day of intense activity for the Obama campaign.  After hearing about a rally for women at Columbus Circle, and an outreach session in Chelsea with the arts community, I made it a point to attend both.  I had to. With my commitment to women’s issues and a parallel life invested in the visual arts, I was pulled…as if by a magnetic field.

It has been very disturbing to witness the divisiveness and acrimony that has enveloped the feminist stratosphere.  The schism in the community has been dramatic.  At the September 2007 Omega Women, Power & Peace Conference, two distinct points of view were in evidence.  The first was, “It’s time for a woman president in our lifetime.”  The second was, “I’m not voting for a woman if she doesn’t reflect my point of view.”  Everything else I have heard since then has been a variation on these themes.

I don’t understand why black women can’t support Clinton without being accused of “abandoning their race.”  Likewise, why are feminists being pushed out of the sisterhood tent for stating that Obama is the candidate who resonates for them?  The New York State chapter of NOW, which put out a press release qualifying Senator Edward Kennedy’s endorsement of Barack Obama as the “ultimate betrayal” of women, ratcheted up emotions to an all time high.  Kim Gandy, President of NOW tried to tone down the rhetoric declaring, “…we respect Sen. Kennedy’s endorsement.  We continue to encourage women everywhere to express their opinions and exercise their right to vote.”  The inevitable deconstruction of it all, running ad nauseam on MSNBC, did little to calm the waters.

I understood what was motivating the Hillary supporters (Why is the electorate on a first-name basis with only this candidate?).  I wanted to find out more about what was mobilizing the Obama camp.

When I got to the noon rally, several hundred people were assembled.  A variety of Obama buttons were being sold that captured the spectrum of the constituency.  The basic white on blue “Obama” looked understated next to the tag line buttons of “Yes We Can” and “GLBT for Obama.”  Placards included “MAMA 4 Obama” and “Hapas for Obama.”  (Hapas is a Hawaiian slang word for mixed race.)  There was ethnic diversity and a wide range of ages.  The rally was sponsored by New York Women for Obama, a grassroots organization that has a committee of 150 women leaders culled from the fields of law, finance, medicine, education, social services, and the arts.  The facts sheet listed a schedule of ten speakers.  There were as many prominent women on the ground as up on the stage.

Gretchen Dykstra, civic activist and the former Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs, was a volunteer point-person for the event.  When I asked her why she had become involved with Obama she replied, “It’s a choice between information and inspiration.  For me, you get both in Obama.  He can take us to better places.”  Dykstra reflected on Obama’s passion and gave him high marks for “no pandering.”

While waiting to be introduced to several of the people on the podium, I was able to interact with those in attendance.  Mary Pleshette Willis identified herself as a feminist before articulating, “I believe that Hillary is brilliant.  But she is to me, part of a past administration that I have a lot of problems with…specifically the welfare reform bill of 1996.”  She continued, “Obama is a change.”

Looking for a comment from across the generational divide, I queried Maywa Montenegro on why she was present.   She qualified herself as a first generation American, half-Peruvian and half-Dutch.  The 28-year-old science writer told me, “Obama has the greatest chance of fundamentally changing the landscape of American politics.  He has the heart, the vision, and the smarts.”

I grabbed former City Councilwoman Ronnie Eldridge to pose the question, “What do you think of all the rancor and discord in feminist circles around this election?”  She was direct in her response.  “True feminism is humanism.  True feminism gives you the freedom to choose.”  Picking up a different thread, she continued, “You want to see power in new hands.  Hillary represents the old way of doing things.  It’s centralized, not inclusive.”

I approached Frederike Merck, who I recognized from the feminist circuit. “I was in South Carolina last Saturday,” she told me.  Elaborating on why she is backing Obama she said, “As a woman, I want a uniter who advocates clarity.  A person who speaks to issues that people have ignored for decades…like our country being fractured.”

Hearing a tape of Stevie Wonder singing “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” was a cue that the formal program was over.  Despite the brisk temperature, people weren’t leaving, as though savoring the solidarity.  Minister Sylvia Kinard-Thompson had just roused the audience with her comments, “This election is about personal stuff.  You can’t stay home on February 5th.  It matters who sits in the White House.”  A heavily trafficked point was the fact that New York is a proportional state…not a winner take all.

As Frances Kissling, President of Catholics for a Free Choice from 1982-2007 descended from the platform, I stopped her to find out her reasons for appearing. “I’m here because I think this is one of the most important elections. But first and foremost, the question of the war is central to me.  Second, is character and vision.  I’m looking for what’s inside a person.  Are they a person of profound character?”  Kissling noted that there should be “no entitlement to the presidency based on race or gender.”  She strongly rejected the concept that it could be “anyone’s time” based on these factors.  “It’s about what a person stands for,” she concluded.

Obama Senior Foreign Policy Advisor, Samantha Power, was also on hand.  A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, she has been active in human rights, AIDS, and genocide concerns. She has been credited with making Darfur a front-burner issue for Obama. Despite a throng of people vying for her attention, she zeroed in on the questions I was lobbing at her.  With her background as a reporter, she quickly cut to the chase and gave me a basic primer.  “Obama is a man who can move people to get things done.  Aside from his unwavering support for issues that women care about, he has an ability to build a working majority.” Power made clear, “The country can not afford gridlock.”

Perhaps it was ironic that the rally took place in the shadow of the 1913 Maine Memorial. A monument to The Spanish-American War, a conflict with its own circumstances of ambivalent causes, the inscription reads, “To the Freeman Who Died in the War with Spain that Others May Be Free.”  I spoke with Jan Donatelli, a member of the Veterans Policy Committee for Obama, who is also the New York City Vets Team Co-Coordinator. Donatelli enumerated to me the statistics which show that there are currently more homeless women veterans than ever before in history.  Presently, 6% of the military is comprised of women.  The majority of those serving in Iraq have been deployed from the National Guard.  Facing unique problems, such as who will take care of their children when they are overseas, these concerns have not been adequately addressed. A Navy pilot from 1986-1991, Donatelli has an acute awareness of the challenges veterans face.  She informed me that Obama had “worked tirelessly” in Illinois for mental health benefits for vets that would address Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, traumatic brain injury, and homelessness.  In discussing the Iraq war, she put it bluntly,  “There have been a lot of casualties.”

Before leaving, I met Sara Haile-Mariam, who had been chosen to deliver comments.  A 20-year-old NYU student, she elucidated her “ideological reasons” for supporting Obama.  “I want to see changes from the inside out, a country for all the people.”  Surrounded by numerous women who had been her age in the 60’s and 70’s, Haile-Mariam engaged the topic of the feminist divide head on.  “My generation is not interested in the labels and categorization,” she said.  “For us, it’s not about identity politics.”

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