Affirmative Action Under Attack in California

by Anja Hauenstein, NOW Intern

The "Stop Proposition 209" campaign to defeat the affirmative action ballot measure in California is in full swing. The campaign, which includes NOW, the Feminist Majority and more than 150 other organizations, operates offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles and has mobilized hundreds of volunteers across the state.

California NOW is heavily involved in the campaign, which includes the Freedom Summer and Freedom Fall '96 voter registration and community organizing project, public debates, marches, rallies and media efforts to educate the public about Proposition 209.

"We have to make people understand that 209 will directly impact their ability to have an education and equity at work," said Elizabeth Toledo, president of California NOW. "We have to make people realize that it would be a step backward, that it's a fundamental attack on the civil rights that have just begun to level the economic and education playing fields."

Supporters of 209, led by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, claim the November ballot measure would end unfair preferences based on sex, race or ethnicity in public employment, education and government contracts. In reality, the initiative is an attack on affirmative action programs and an attempt to end 30 years of progress toward equal opportunities for women and people of color. The initiative would repeal affirmative action guidelines for state and local government employees, eliminate equal opportunity in obtaining a share of government contracts and terminate a mandate to promote diversity in public education.

"If 209 passes, it will hurt women and our families," NOW President Patricia Ireland said. "We're heart and soul into this campaign because voters need to recognize the real benefits of affirmative action to our whole society."

Topping the campaign's agenda is convincing voters -- especially women -- that affirmative action is very much needed in this era of continued sexual harassment, glass ceilings, pay inequity and hiring discrimination. California NOW estimates that 1.85 million voters must be persuaded to vote against the initiative, and women comprise half of the swing bloc.

"Opponents of affirmative action have put together a very deceptively worded proposal, but we know when people really understand that the intent is to repeal affirmative action, then support for 209 drops dramatically," Ireland said.

NOW especially is focused on getting out the word on 209's threat to women. The initiative contains a provision, known as "Clause C," that would allow California to set "bona fide qualifications based on sex, which are reasonably necessary" in public employment, education and contracting. This could permit a wide range of discrimination against women, such as barring them from becoming firefighters in an otherwise all-male division or justifying denial of a promotion because of pregnancy.

So far the fight against the initiative has produced encouraging results. Former advocates, including presidential want-to-be Bob Dole, have lost their enthusiasm for 209, and there is a growing swing vote, especially among Republican women, Toledo said.

"I have a lot of faith that we can defeat 209," Toledo said. "It might be a very close vote, but we have the opportunity to take advantage of a significant gender gap. It all gets down to efficient grassroots organizing and a massive get-out-the-vote effort."

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