CHARLOTTE — The National Women’s Political Caucus is about issues, not party affiliation, as it tries to get more women elected to office. But the issues it cares about — supporting a women’s right to choose, the Equal Rights Amendment and dependent care for women balancing responsibility for children and aging relatives — come with a party label these days.
At the organization’s packed reception at Ri Ra Irish pub on Sunday afternoon, before the official Tuesday start of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, shouts of “yes we can” echoed Obama campaign enthusiasm. National Organization for Women president Terry O’Neill, a familiar television presence, put it this way: “The radical fringe on the right wing has taken over the Republican Party.” She lamented the invisibility of GOP women with more moderate views, such as Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine) at the Republican convention in Tampa.
You couldn’t move without bumping into a feminist leader, an elected official or a woman aspiring to be one on Sunday. But while the pub setting may have abetted the high spirits of the mostly female crowd, the passion was fueled by what a lineup of speakers described as the important stakes in November 2012 and the need for grass-roots campaigning when the other side has a money advantage.
Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” stumble and a conservative GOP platform certainly made social issues part of the national conversation. (Marion Sullivan, in views she said were hers and not those of her boss, North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue, said, “If climate change was renamed vagina, global warming would no longer be ignored.”) But speaker after speaker deconstructed the category of “women’s issues,” placed into its own category, separate from the grown-up stuff like the economy.
“Women care about jobs,” said North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, a Democrat. “We care about fair pay for those jobs,” she said. “We care about compassionate employers who understand demands on us. We care about jobs with adequate health-care coverage that covers our reproductive rights, including contraception.” Instead of “making sure this fragile recovery continues, Republicans have turned to social issues that target women,” she said, “and demeaning those of us who dare to disagree.”
O’Neill talked about the effect of Medicare cuts in the budget proposal of Rep. Paul Ryan, not just on women who receive Medicare but also on the health-care workers, overwhelming female, low-paid and without health insurance that staff the nursing homes she said would close when states lose a percentage of the federal support of Medicaid. “Where are they going to get a job?” she said. The vice presidential candidate was not a popular figure in the room, which reached its highest decibel level with chants of “Ryan is lying,” the general opinion of his explanations of how his plan would save Medicare.
In a conversation later, O’Neill said that women would be most affected by other cuts in the Ryan budget, the social workers, teachers and administrators that implement the Head Start, food stamp and after-school child-care programs. “These are exactly the jobs that get so many families into the middle class and out of poverty,” O’Neill said.
Eleanor Smeal, former NOW president and founder of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said women disproportionately feel the effect of strict voter-ID laws being fought over in the state.
“It never occurred to us that a major party would pass voter suppression to suppress not only the student vote, which is majority women, but older women’s votes by these IDs that need your birth certificate,” she said. A lot of older women don’t have a driver’s license and have lost track of their birth certificates or marriage licenses, she said. “The gender gap was pushed by African-American women, by young women, by single women.”
Valerie McMurray, 55, is one of those single women. She said she supports everything the National Women’s Political Caucus stands for and believes the war on women is real. “The extreme right knows the power women have when they work together, and they’re afraid of that,” she said. McMurray, of Charlotte, said she thinks President Obama will win North Carolina and will be reelected with the support of women because “he’s done more for women and the 99 percent.”
Retired physician Bret Burquest of Charlotte was comfortable being in the minority in the room. “So often these days, women have the right answers,” on issues from birth control to education, he said. He doesn’t know why more men don’t “go ahead and support them.” Burquest, 77, was registered as an independent his whole voting life, but became a Democrat a year ago. “Citizens United has given power to all the wealthiest,” he said, “and they have all the power already.”
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times and Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3