AT THE 1988 DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION
by Jo Freeman
in off our backs, October 1988, pp. 4-5.
activities of feminist and other women's organizations at the 1988
Democratic convention were driven by an overriding desire to elect
a Democratic administration in November. There was universal agreement
that the Reagan years have been disastrous for women, and that four
more years of Republican rule will, at the very least, result in a
Supreme Court that will limit women's options for decades to come.
goal more than anything else explains the relative quiescence of the
fifteen organizations1 that formed
Women's Central and held the usual women's caucus every day of the
convention. Indeed when Ellie Smeal and Molly Yard, past and current
Presidents of NOW, expressed some mild disaffection with the amount
of attention feminist issues and representatives received from the
Dukakis campaign, it was quickly countered with a press conference
by heads of six Women's Central organizations to extol the fact that
women were now insiders. And Kate Michelman, executive director of
NARAL, lauded Vice-Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen's voting record
on abortion even though he opposes federal funding.
sense of unity and common purpose these women expressed was not artificial,
because to a greater extent than ever thought possible when contemporary
feminists first made demands at the 1972 convention, women were
insiders. The Dukakis campaign emphasized that women held a large
numbers of the top positions -- including campaign manager Susan Estrich.
Texas Treasurer Ann Richards, a member of the NWPC, was a big hit
as the keynote speaker. And even Ellie Smeal agreed that the Platform
contained everything feminists had demanded.
over platform language have provided a unifying agenda for feminists
at past conventions, particularly in 1980 when the Carter campaign
unsuccessfully opposed a feminist plank to deny Democratic Party funds
to any candidate who did not support the ERA. However, in 1984 the
Mondale campaign sought the endorsement of NOW early on, and ceded
"sign off" authority on all platform language concerning
women to Mary Jean Collins, NOW's Action Vice President that year.
No single person or organization had that authority in 1988. Instead,
a coalition of groups worked with Eleanor Holmes Norton of the Jackson
campaign and Michael Barnes of Dukakis' campaign to achieve mutually
the final result was the same as in 1984, the process was more problematical.
Feminists were alarmed last December when Democratic National Committee
Chair Paul G. Kirk, Jr. stated that he wanted a platform that was
short and softpedaled such controversial issues as abortion and the
ERA. Twenty women leaders met with Kirk to point out that leaving
those issues out would be more controversial at the convention than
putting them in. The group included representatives from NOW, NWPC,
BPW, AAUW, and women such as Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D. Ohio), and Ann
Lewis, head of the NWPC's Democratic Task Force and former political
director of the DNC.
agreed to meet regularly with a smaller task force chosen by the women
leaders, and Rep. Oakar called two major meetings of feminist, union
and liberal organizations to talk to select platform committee members
about their concerns. After Michigan Gov. James J. Blanchard was named
chair of the platform committee he also met with feminist representatives,
including Irene Natividad of the NWPC, Kate Michelman of NARAL and
Judith Lichtman of the Women's Legal Defense Fund. According to Michelman,
Blanchard was receptive to explicit mention of feminist concerns in
Nonetheless, the initial draft of the platform written by Ted Sorenson
at the behest of Kirk did not reflect the understandings of that Spring
when it was presented to the 16 member drafting committee on June
10. Instead of endorsing the ERA and a woman's right to choose abortion,
it made casual reference to "equal rights of all men and women"
and "freedom of choice regarding childbirth."
The DNC traditionally defers to the desires of the winning candidates
in writing the platform so Jackson's and Dukakis' representatives,
Norton and Barnes, had the final say. Norton, Chair of the Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission during the Carter administration and currently
a professor at Georgetown Law School has a long record of supporting
feminist issues. While Barnes, a former Maryland Congressman, lacked
her track record, his instructions were clear. Alice Travis, National
Political Director of the Dukakis campaign had met with Dukakis shortly
after Kirk's December statement and reminded him that it was important
that ERA and abortion be explicitly mentioned in the platform.
Representatives of NOW, NWPC, and NARAL met with Norton and Barnes
at the drafting committee meeting. They also worked through five strong
sympathizers on the committee itself. "A lot of the major players
were our folk", Natividad said. While not unhappy with the proposals
that emerged from the June 10 meeting, the women thought there was
room for improvement at the full Platform Committee meeting in Denver
on June 25. According to Michelman, in Denver "the language was
expanded, not by motions and votes but behind the scenes." The
final platform contained "the whole gamut of women's issues,"
she said, though in abbreviated form and not in any one section. Conciseness
was typical of the entire platform, not just feminist concerns.
proposed by the Committee and passed in Atlanta by the Democratic
National Convention, the Platform urges adoption of the ERA and demands
that "the fundamental right of reproductive choice should be
guaranteed regardless of ability to pay." It also states that
"we honor our multicultural heritage by assuring equal access
to government services, employment, housing, business enterprise and
education to every citizen regardless of race, sex, national origin,
religion, age, handicapping condition or sexual orientation."
In addition to these traditional planks, the Democratic party is on
record in favor of "pay equity for working women" and "family
leave policies that no longer force employees to choose between their
jobs and their children or ailing parents." Child care is mentioned
three times. The section on revitalization of the "country's
democratic processes" contains a NOW proposal supporting "the
full and equal access of women and minorities to elective office and
Although women got everything they wanted in the Platform, the Jackson
campaign didn't. Ten minority reports were filed (requiring the vote
of one-fourth of the Platform Committee) of which three were chosen
by the Jackson campaign for debate at the convention. Because there
were no burning issues on the feminist agenda at the convention, the
Women's Central organizations allotted the first two days of its caucus
to debate on the Jackson minority proposals. They concerned Palestine,
"no first use" of nuclear weapons and raising taxes. However
most of the several hundred women attending the caucus meetings were
not delegates, and only a few were really interested in those topics.
The debates were very short, and when delegates only were asked to
express their preference for the issues under debate, less than two
dozen members of the audience raised their hands.
Actress Margot Kidder speaks on
behalf of the Jackson planks
Jackson had sought the support of the women's caucus for his planks
in 1984, but few of his supporters were present for the debate in
1988. According to Vicki Alexander, Chair of the Women's Commission
of the Rainbow Coalition and an at-large delegate from New York, the
Jackson delegates "didn't see women as a primary issue and wanted
to work for Jackson in their state delegations."
Also absent was the antagonism between black women and the "white
women's movement" that had marked the 1984 convention and resulted
in a separate, closed, caucus of black women. At that time, black
women, most of whom were Jackson supporters, were angry that Mondale
had not interviewed any minority women when searching for a running
mate. According to former Brooklyn Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm
they asked the Women's Coalition to support the Jackson minority planks
with the delegate whip system that had been created to put a woman's
name into nomination if Mondale didn't. She said they were angry when
the Coalition instead dismantled the whip system.
Shortly after the 1984 Democratic Convention, Chisholm, a founder
in 1971 of the National Women's Political Caucus, also founded the
National Political Congress of Black Women. While in Atlanta for the
1988 convention, she convened an Atlanta chapter and inducted over
a hundred local Atlantans into her organization. She urged them to
run for office. "If we do this we won't have to go to the table,"
she told the women. "They will seek us out."
This message of finally being accepted was common to the women's caucus
and the Jackson delegates, even though they never met together. It
was usually coupled with exhortations to unity. According to Vicki
Alexander, long before the convention, while the press was playing
up conflicts between Dukakis and Jackson, the latter's followers were
being counseled to accept compromise in order to beat Bush. However,
unlike women, the sense of acceptance for Blacks was tied to Jackson.
This is the first convention in several in which there were no daily
black caucus meetings as there were women's caucus meetings. One small
black caucus meeting was held the first day, but after that the Jackson
delegate meetings and a series of seminars for Jackson supporters
at Morris Brown college were the locus of black activity.
In her address
to this gathering, C. Delores Tucker, former Secretary of State of
Pennsylvania and then chair of the DNC Black Caucus, was still
talking about how "our white sisters disappeared" in 1984.
However, she concluded "we aren't second class citizens anymore."
The one time black and white women were both present in large numbers
was Monday afternoon at a reception Voters for Choice gave for California
Assemblywoman Maxine Waters. Alexander described it as an "incredible
coming together of black, white and Hispanic women." At this
event both feminist and black leaders, including Gloria Steinem, Correta
Scott King and California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown talked about
the need for unity. The Platform speaks to the needs of all women
they said. Maxine Waters pointed out that while women may fight, in
the end they work together.
One of those occasions was at the Democratic Party's Rules Committee
meeting on June 25 in Washington. From the NOW convention in Buffalo,
Molly Yard called for a reduction of the superdelegates while the
Jackson campaign won the vote to eliminate most of the DNC members
as automatic delegates to the next Democratic convention. This will
remove approximately 250 superdelegates -- public and party officials
not selected through primaries and caucuses -- from the current 646.
Many believe that without the large number of superdelegates Dukakis
would have had a harder time sewing up the nomination so early.
However, since the Democratic Party Charter requires that elected
DNC members be equally divided by sex, and there is no such requirement
for the other superdelegates, this change in the rules will make it
harder to achieve 50-50 representation for women at the 1992 convention.
Equal division has been required since 1980, but the presence of superdelegates
still tips the balance in favor of males. The 1984 convention had
50 more men than women delegates, and in 1988 there were over a hundred
more men because public officials such as Members of Congress and
Democratic governors are overwhelmingly male. Since they are also
overwhelmingly white, women were 45 % of all white delegates, but
55 % of minority delegates. Thirty-three percent of the delegates
to the 1988 convention were of black, Hispanic, Asian Pacific or Native
Although women comprise between 55 and 60 percent of Democratic voters,
there was no interest in demanding that this be reflected at future
conventions. Instead, there was a consensus among feminist and other
women's organizations that the next step is more women candidates.
The third day of the women's caucus was devoted to introducing new
candidates to women activists. One of the most popular symbols at
the women's caucus was a sticker reading "5 %" passed out
by the Fund for the Feminist Majority. The number referred to the
gross underrepresentation of women in Congress, and attracted the
same kind of attention that "59 %" (women's earnings compared
to men's) did several years ago.
Women are only 2 % of U.S. Senators, 4.7 % of Members of congress,
11 % of State Senators, and 17 % of State Assembly members. The evidence
is that these low numbers are not due to rejection by the voters,
but the difficulties of mounting credible candidacies and getting
party support. Several studies have shown that when key factors such
as party label, incumbency, and money are equal, women candidates
do as well as men.
Ellie Smeal, founder of the Fund for a Feminist Majority, said elected
women are equally divided between the Republican and Democratic Parties,
and the that "the Republican Party has done more affirmative
action in electing women candidates." However, she added, the
candidates of both parties are getting better, and women have more
power in Dukakis' campaign than in Mondale's, even though feminists
and feminist organizations are getting less attention. As an example
of the latter, she pointed out that neither of the candidates spoke
to the women's caucus whereas both Mondale and Jackson had done so
in 1984. Instead, Smeal said, "we're back to getting the wife
This was a reference to Kitty Dukakis, who addressed the women's caucus
on the last day. Despite her spousal status, her talk was enthusiastically
received, unlike Bentsen's, who spoke the day before. The day after
the convention was over both Dukakis and Jackson spoke to a meeting
of black and other Jackson delegates. Neither appeared before the
However, Dukakis did meet with over a dozen elected women at the request
of former New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug and Maryland Senator
Barbara Mikulski on the third day of the convention. The women told
him that it was important to focus on "gender gap issues"
such as the economic well being of low income women and war and peace.
Kate Michelman of NARAL and Mary Futrel of the National Education
Association were the only organization representatives present.
There were obvious lines of tension between NOW and the mainstream
of the party, which the other women's organizations appeared not to
share. Molly Yard said she had regular communication with the Jackson
campaign, but little with the Dukakis people. Both she and Smeal attributed
this to the tendency of Party regulars to blame NOW for Mondale's
defeat in 1984. NOW was the primary mover behind Geraldine Ferraro's
selection as Mondale's running mate, and was a target of Republican
propaganda that Mondale was pandering to the special interests in
the Democratic Party. As part of its counterattack, the Reagan campaign
identified select groups of women voters with specific issue interests
and aimed commercials at them.
The 1984 election results showed the same gender gap that had first
appeared in 1980. Women were still 8 % more likely to vote Democratic
than men. But because the gap did not increase the press coverage
gave the impression that it had disappeared. The strategy of appealing
to women was pronounced a failure despite the fact that the exit polls
definitively showed that Ferraro's presence on the ticket did not
hurt Mondale, and probably helped him slightly. However, as in 1972,
another year in which victory for the Democratic Party was a long
shot, party leaders sought a scapegoat. That year they attacked the
changes in delegate selection rules that had resulted in McGovern's
nomination; in 1984 it was the presence of a woman on the ticket and
the role of NOW in achieving this that was the object of insider anger.
Neither NOW nor any other feminist organization endorsed any of the
Presidential aspirants in 1988. Yard said that the only candidate
which inspired NOW's membership was Colorado Rep. Pat Schroeder, who
tested the waters in the summer of 1987 after an enthusiastic reception
at the NOW convention in July of that year. Although $350,000 was
pledged to her campaign at that convention, and a test mailing showed
even stronger support, Schroeder decided that her time had not come
in 1988, and withdrew without ever officially declaring her candidacy.
The only feminist organization to endorse was NARAL, which played a much bigger
role at this convention than it has done in the past. To "insure
that abortion was a salient issue" it sent a packet to all delegates,
including a tape recording and literature. According to Michelman,
phone calls identified 1,500 pro-choice delegates. Although she knew
abortion wouldn't be an issue at the convention, she hopes it will
become one during the campaign.
Pro-life supporters share her sentiments, though their presence in
the Democratic Party is very slim. John C. Wilke of National Right
to Life, Kay James of Black Americans for Life, and Jackie Schweitzer
of National Pro-Life Democrats flew in for a press-conference to protest
"the most pro-abortion presidential ticket in history" and
flew out the same day. Copies of NARAL leaflets lauding Lloyd Bentsen
were included in their press packet. Schweitzer admitted that pro-life
Democrats "have left the party or dropped out of active participation
because of the Democratic leadership's pro-abortion position."
She will not work for the national ticket in November.
When asked when why pro-life didn't file a minority report on the
Platform, she said she couldn't find anyone on the Committee willing
to do so. She also said her home state of Minnesota sent 16 pro-lifers
to the 1984 Democratic Convention, but only three to this one. Jesse
Jackson came under particular attack from Kay James who accused him
of selling out to the feminists when he decided to run for President.
Until then, James said, Jackson was pro-life and called abortion "black
These pro-life speakers claimed no relationship to "Operation
Rescue" which had tried to close an abortion clinic the day before.
Thwarted by the Atlanta police using background information provided
by the Georgia NARAL affiliate, 134 demonstrators were arrested. They
were detained for several weeks because they insisted on giving their
names as "Baby John" or "Baby Jane." The judge
would not set bail without knowing their real names.
Although Dukakis has a strong pro-choice record he has given no indication
that it will be a campaign issue, in part because there is a perception
that the issue is more important to pro-life voters than pro-choice
voters. Surveys indicate that abortion is a salient issue for three
to ten percent of the voters in federal elections, and that pro-choice
supporters are ten percent more likely to vote Democratic than Republican.
NARAL argues that abortion could be a critical factor in November
but a recent analysis performed for the Alan Guttmacher Institute
by Patricia Donovan, maintains "abortion has had little or no
influence on the outcome of the vast majority of races."
Surveys conducted by the major media show that Democratic delegates
are considerably more pro-choice than Democratic voters. Nonetheless
they were unwilling to make a public issue of their pro-choice position
as reflected in the lack of signs and buttons on the second
day of the convention which NARAL had designated "choice day."
Despite NARAL's efforts to put choice stickers on delegates' lapels
and signs in their hands only a few showed in the convention arena
that night, when Jesse Jackson addressed the delegates. "ERA
YES" and other feminist signs were more popular but still lost in
the sea of red "Jesse" signs. Indeed the most visible signs
and lapel stickers of all among people attending the convention --
in and out of the arena -- were those stating "silence = death"
distributed by the Gay and Lesbian Caucus. This group still lacks
the insider status finally achieved by blacks and women, but was by
far the most visible.
| Sen. Alan Cranston of CA
Lack of visibility remains the greatest concern of feminist leaders,
even though its presence could threaten their insider status. The
day after the convention ended, Jesse Jackson told a mass meeting
of his followers to "keep up the street heat." Bella Abzug
privately urged her supporters to "organize inside and outside."
Blacks and women agree that the party has opened up and is finally
listening. But neither are ready to shut up.
See photos from the 1988 Democratic Convention.
American Association of University Women, American Nurses Association,
Emily's List, Fund for the Feminist Majority, League of Women Voters,
National Abortion Rights Action League, National Association of Social
Workers, National Organization for Women, National Women's Law Center,
National Women's Political Caucus - Democratic Task Force, Planned
Parenthood, Voters for Choice, Women's Campaign Fund, Women's Legal
Defense Fund, YMCA of the USA.