The National Organization for Women's recent endorsement of Barack Obama ordinarily would not be such a big deal. Even though the organization endorsed Hillary Clinton in the primaries, it makes sense that the group would channel its energy to the Democratic nominee. Still, with all the tension around gender and race that spilled over during the primaries, the NOW endorsement of Obama earlier this week had the feel of a consolation prize.
That said, it was a consolation prize that Obama sorely needed—and welcomed.
Obama needs the help of the leading white feminist organization for a number of reasons—to help older white voters feel comfortable about his age and experience, to convince white working-class voters that he will not just be the president for black people and to persuade undecided white voters—especially undecided women or disgruntled Hillary supporters—to give him a chance.
It's not like NOW had a lot of other options. It could certainly not back John McCain, a candidate whose positions on pay equity, reproductive choice and Supreme Court appointments, among other issues, are anathema to their core principles.
Still, NOW's leadership could have decided to sit out this election and taken a Hillary-or-no-one position. Camp Obama should be relieved that they did not. With the campaign in a virtual dead heat (at least according to some polls), the "Palin Factor" pulling independent and undecided voters off the fence and still-angry Clinton supporters vowing to go with McCain, being NOW's second choice is not so bad. It signals that even an organization viewed as the voice of liberal, middle-class white women—the very women who made up a good portion of Clinton's base—understands what's at stake in this election and, despite disappointment over Clinton's loss, would not sacrifice their long-term political interests to make a short-term political point.
Gloria Steinem, a prominent Clinton supporter who is also now backing Obama, argued the same position in a widely read Op-Ed earlier this month. "To vote in protest for McCain-Palin would be like saying, 'Somebody stole my shoes, so I'll amputate my legs,''' she wrote.
Even Emily's List, the influential political advocacy group founded to help elect more Democratic pro-choice women to office, has urged Clinton supporters to vote for Obama. Emily's List did this despite the fact that they endorsed Clinton, thrashed Obama during the primaries and criticized NARAL Pro-Choice America last spring for endorsing Obama.
These organizations deserve credit for taking a stand. The question now is will their flock, the rank-and-file members still smarting over Clinton, follow these leads and actually vote for Obama? Or will they rationalize voting for a right-wing, anti-choice male candidate by saying they're really voting for his female running mate? The angry, die-hard Hillaryites—the PUMAs (aka Party Unity My Ass), the Clintons for McCain and the Just Say No Deal crowd—are a tiresome and annoying bunch. Unfortunately, they also have a following.
Despite some signs that good portions of white female Clinton supporters are, in fact, coming around to Obama, a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that "Just 50 percent of Clinton supporters say they're 'definitely' for Obama."
The poll also found that: "White women have moved from 50-42 percent in Obama's favor before the conventions to 53-41 percent for McCain now, a 20-point shift in the margin that's one of the single biggest post-convention changes in voter preferences."
These resisters are a worrisome lot. With the help of the Web and the blogosphere, they have deftly exploited the media's penchant for covering controversy and discord. When Emily's List encouraged Clinton supporters to back Obama, the holdouts complained and took to the Web to criticize the organization. When Oprah Winfrey issued a statement earlier this month to refute a Drudge Report claim about dissension among Winfrey's staff over whether Sarah Palin should be invited on her television show, more than 8,000 people—most of them women—weighed in on Oprah's site. Many angrily took issue with Oprah's explanation that Palin would be welcomed on her show after the election and accused Oprah of showing racial bias. They also urged fans to boycott her show and cancel their subscriptions to her popular magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine.
Oprah said she doesn't want to use her show "as a platform for any of the candidates." She also noted that Obama appeared on her show before he announced his run for the presidency and that she has not had him on her show since. (She has attended campaign rallies for Obama, however, and held a major fundraiser for him at her Santa Barbara spread.) The critics weren't buying it. They pointed out that Hillary Clinton had never been invited on the show but that Obama was on twice (January '05 and October '06). For what it's worth, I say it's Oprah's show and that's her right. It's not a news program, so she doesn't have to give each candidate equal time.
But instead of all this noise about minor distractions, feminists would do better acting on principles rather than the need for political revenge. They should vote for the candidate whose positions would benefit women and protect their rights. Can they really look each other in the eye and say honestly that John McCain is the better choice? Or that Sarah Palin is? And if they wake up on Nov. 5 to a McCain presidency, will they be able to live with themselves, and more importantly, will they be able to live with the resulting setbacks on issues that really matter to the lives of women?
Marjorie Valbrun is a regular contributor to The Root.