Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) may have voted right on women's issues every time, but, as Hilda Huber points out, "even if you put a dress and a wig on him, he is still not a woman."
Hilda Huber is leader of the local unit of the Women's Political Caucus in Colorado Springs. Hers is just one of the women's groups embroiled in a controversy over whom to endorse in the Colorado Senate race -- Hart or his female opponent, Mary Estill Buchanan, who is giving Hart an unexpectedly tough race.
The dispute raises questions broader than this Rocky Mountain contest and highlights both a delight and a dilemma for politically active women's organizations these days, as support for women's rights broadens and the number of female candidates -- including some who do not embrace feminist goals -- increases.
For example, given a race between a man and a woman -- both of whom are strong on women's issues -- is it fair or politically wise for these groups to throw their support automatically to the woman, and against the man? Or, in another variation of the theme, when there is a choice to be made between getting a woman elected to office or effectively pursuing the cause of women's rights, which gets top priority?
Huber and her backers contend that, given the circumstances in the Colorado race at least, their priorities are clear.
"The women's caucus was established for the specific purpose of getting women into positions of power," Huber said. "When you start losing focus on this, you start getting into trouble."
But Geraldine Bean, president of the state caucus, believes otherwise. "We felt that to deny [Hart] the endorsement merely because he was male would have been artificial and unrealistic. . . . But this is in a way a happy problem. It used to be hard for us to find any candidate who stood with us on the issues. Now, we are embarrassed by wealth."
In September, members of the state caucus organization voted 18 to 11 to endorse both Hart and Buchanan.
When the national caucus held its meeting in Des Moines in late September, Huber showed up with a minority statement protesting the action of the state body. In keeping with its tradition of never endorsing a male candidate, the national refused the state caucus request for financial support to Hart and contributed only to Buchanan.
"This was one of the most difficult decisions that we've made," said Iris Mitgang, national president of the Women's Political Caucus.
"We have an ongoing dialogue . . . with high feelings on both sides of how best we can address our goals," she said. "This is what gives the caucus its vitality.But it also causes us a lot of headaches during the endorsing season. . . . Ours is a delicate balance between affirmative action and paying our political dues."
She noted that the organization stresses the grass-roots independence of its membership and, while the national caucus and some state units never endorse male candidates, some other units have chosen to endorse men. The national organization, too, is reassessing its policies, she added, and will in the future consider the candidacy of men "after the women's needs have been addressed first."
In Massachusetts this week, the state Women's Political Caucus faced up to a different sort of conflict and voted to endorse a man rather than their most distinguished member, Republican Margaret Heckler, a seven-term U.S. representative and the senior woman member of Congress.
Because of Heckler's stand against abortion, the caucus would not endorse her. "That was very painful. Peg has been a leader in the fight for equal rights," Mitgang said.
The Women's Campaign Fund, another major women's political organization, has been going through a similar inner struggle. Regarding the Colorado race, their board so far has decided "not to decide," as spokesman Amy Swauger put it. But the issue is expected to come up again at their meeting next week.
"There are obviously strong feelings" among the board members, she said, not only over the Colorado race, but others such as Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman versus Sen. Jacob K. Javitz in New York, and Marge Roukema versus Andrew McGuire in New Jersey.
Like the caucus, the Campaign Fund does not endorse men, she explained. The conflict was whether to endorse a woman over a friendly man, or not to endorse at all."We are certainly not in the business of attempting to defeat men who have been good to us," Swauger said.
Another group that most people lump in with the pro-feminist camp took a different tack in Colorado. The political action arm of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) endorsed Hart.
"He's pro-choice, and he has worked actively for it. That's our one focus," said Marguerite Beck-Rex. "Time magazine named him one of the 50 most promising new leaders, and he has a leg up to become a leader of the future, to get on all the right committees." And, she added, he was earlier hit-listed by antiabortion forces, which virtually automatically assures NARAL's support.
But Hilda Huber sees it differently. Buchanan "is a ding-dong good feminist," she said. "As a Republican in a conservative state, she put her neck on the line" to support feminist stands opposed by her party, and a lot of women got out and worked for her.
Of her successful battle to get onto the primary ballot, and her narrow upset victory over former secretary of the Army Howard (Bo) Calloway in the primary, Huber said, "We feel that woman power did it."