When Women Don’t Vote, Extremists Win

Today people vote in one of the most pivotal elections ever for women’s rights. We are faced with the very real possibility of taking a major step toward losing one of our hardest won and most dearly held rights: the right to a safe, legal and affordable abortion. At least eight candidates are on record saying that if elected, they will work to eliminate abortion rights, even in cases of rape, incest or to protect a woman’s health.

If you believe the polls, the “gender gap” that has put Democratic candidates ahead of Republicans among women in recent elections has disappeared. According to a new New York Times/CBS News poll,

In the case of women — a traditionally Democratic-leaning group that the White House has been courting actively in recent weeks — the shift toward the Republicans was marked in the latest poll, especially when compared with their stated preferences in the last Times/CBS poll, in mid-September.

In the earlier poll, women favored Democrats over Republicans by seven percentage points. In the latest poll, women said they were likely to support a Republican over a Democrat by four percentage points, suggesting Republican gains among women who were undecided as of last month.

Conservatives would love to believe that women voters have turned around in just a few short weeks to support candidates who’ll vote against abortion rights, marriage equality and fair pay, and in general don’t believe in the validity of the women’s rights agenda–but I think there’s a different explanation for these numbers.

More likely, as we’ve heard over and over in this election, there is an “enthusiasm gap” among voters, with conservatives feeling more energized and excited about voting–and more likely to talk to pollsters.

But we can still change the face of the electorate on Tuesday.

This midterm election is extremely critical — and women stand to gain or lose so much. Polls show that dozens of races are tight, and many of our feminist allies are neck and neck with right-wing opponents.

The key to the right wing’s strategy is to defeat the strong feminist women who have fought for our rights, our lives and our families in the House and Senate — leaders like Senator Barbara Boxer in California, Senator Patty Murray in Washington State and Representative Betsy Markey in Colorado. Experience has taught us that the radical right will do, say and spend whatever it takes to achieve its ends. And this year, thanks to the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United decision, corporations and billionaires are doling out hundreds of millions of dollars to oust our strongest champions.

Along with the established feminist leaders targeted by the right wing, the big guns are aimed at rising stars like U.S. Senate hopeful Elaine Marshall in North Carolina and House candidate Lois Herr in Pennsylvania who is challenging Rep. Joe Pitts, co-author of the infamous Stupak-Pitts anti-abortion amendment to the health care reform bill.

All these campaigns are going down to the wire with the races too close to call . In each of these races–and many more–women can deliver the margin of victory on Tuesday.

It’s easy to be cynical and disheartened by the political system these days, but we can’t let that keep us away from the polls. That’s what the anti-choice, anti-women’s rights crowd wants. It’s called “voter suppression.” We can’t let them win.

Throughout the history of the women’s movement in this country, our progress has often been painfully slow. I’ve lost count of the number of women who have told me how frustrated they are when the changes they voted for mysteriously stall out in the legislative process, or are compromised away too quickly. I’ve felt that frustration myself over the past couple years. But voting for change isn’t something we only do once. We have to do it again and again, especially at those critical moments when we are at our most discouraged.

This is one of those times, when we must reach deep into ourselves and return again to the struggle for equality and justice. We need to look beyond all the negative campaigning, attack ads, angry rhetoric and cynical forecasts, and pick ourselves up on Tuesday–even if it’s raining cats and dogs–and get to the polls.

There’s an old saying among activists–“Don’t agonize, organize!” Good advice–but I have just one word to add: Vote!

Originally published on Terry O’Neill’s Huffington Post blog on November 2, 2010

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