NOW warns Democrats on women's issues

The women's movement has fired a warning shot across the bow of the Democratic Party. The National Organization for Women (NOW) is demanding that half of all candidates endorsed by the party be women. If the party refuses, feminist activists promise to take their fight to the floor of the Democratic convention in July.

In testimony yesterday before the Democratic Party's platform committee, NOW president Molly Yard and Eleanor Smeal, former head of NOW and currently president of the Fund for the Feminist Majority, proposed an ``equal representation rule'' that would commit the party to a goal of parity in candidate endorsements in local, state, and national elections.

Democratic officials have been sending out the word for months that they want to avoid the appearance of catering to special interests in the 1988 election, and would therefore like to limit the platform to statements of general principles that will serve to define the party.

Most of the usual Democratic constituency groups, including labor and education groups, have heeded the party's signals. Only NOW is rocking the boat.

``This is not the time for the Democratic Party to send signals that it will in any way deny the importance of women's issues,'' Ms. Yard said. ``If [women's] issues are removed, altered, or obfuscated, it will send a message to women voters that can, and in all likelihood will, cost the Democrats dearly at the ballot box.''

Most Democratic activists would prefer a quieter approach. The prospect of a floor fight being broadcast to millions of Americans during the Democratic convention is hardly appealing.

``We can make ourselves look foolish by fighting over the platform in a year when we all need to pull together,'' says Matt Reese, a Democratic consultant. Party activists concur on the importance of increasing the number of women involved in the political process, but they want the issue handled more delicately.

There is a strong feeling among many Democrats that the party has been pushed in too many directions by liberal constituencies that no longer represent the party's mainstream.

``In the past ... the platform didn't really define a political party, it just defined a collection of interests, of factions,'' says William Marshal, the policy director of the Democratic Leadership Council. ``The problem the Democratic Party has had in the last four or five elections is a very indistinct identity, blurred by all the clamor of groups. People want to know who is driving the train here, is it interest groups or is there some core set of principles that animates the party.''

Mr. Marshal describes the NOW proposal as ``an effort to apply some rigid, mechanistic rule to achieve a social result which may be desirable, but that probably is not feasible.''

``Women represent half the population, we should have parity in terms of governance,'' counters Jane Danowitz, executive director of the Women's Campaign Fund. ``As a goal I think that is extremely important. I'm not quite sure how you go through the mechanics of mandating the party to do that and how you enforce that.''

Carol Whitney, a political consultant who works primarily with Republican women candidates, has not had a problem getting GOP endorsement for her candidates. ``We have had a problem,'' she says, ``convincing women to run.''

She thinks the NOW proposal is a bit backward. ``I'm really tired of pushing people to endorse women, demanding that they endorse women, without doing the work to get women prepared to run and to get the right women to run. ... Forcing equal numbers isn't the point at all,'' she says.

Irene Natividad, the chairwoman of the National Women's Political Caucus, also testified before the platform committee in Washington yesterday, but she is not supporting the NOW proposal.

``It's a laudable plank, but I think it is difficult to enforce it upon either party. ... To demand ... an equal representation quota is difficult in light of political reality where women are still recent political immigrants. There just are not that many of us yet running for all the offices in this country.''

On the other hand, she says, ``If the Democrats do not grapple with these issues and take the lead, the Republicans are going to take them away.''

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