NARAL's New Way: Women in Politics

Women at a table with a "A Woman's Right to Choose" banner above them

Southern Exposure

Magazine cover with "Elections" in blue text against white background, and "grassroots strategies for change" in black text

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 12 No. 1, "Elections: Grassroots Strategies for Change." Find more from that issue here.

Americans love politics and power, complete with all the trappings. They love to wipe the slate clean with drama and fanfare. But there are at least two things wrong with our mental pictures of politics. They don't include women, and they perpetuate the myth that politics is a dramatic event, thus obscuring the mundane day-to-day work and the numerous ways that politics touches every aspect of life.

Both of these factors are changing, because the media, the parties, and the polls have all discovered the gender gap — a new cliché, but also a reality of formidable political potential. The gap, quite simply, lies in the difference between the female and male vote. Women are finally going to the polls in numbers equal to men, but the percentage of the vote they give to the more progressive candidates is often from six to 12 points higher than men's.

Such a margin can be critical in a close election, and both major parties have taken notice and are studying how best to woo women to their sides. The major national women's organizations have also given notice: women can vote as a bloc, and they will. Women have begun raising money among themselves to support their candidates from either party. In 1982, the first year for a Minnesota women's fund, donors contributed more than $100,000. Given the option to designate whether their money went to Republican or Democratic candidates, 90 percent checked "Don't Care."

What is happening? Women are finally identifying the issues important to them as women and then voting in their own interests. Party affiliation is secondary; women are hurt the most by conservative economic policies so progressive politics are in their interest. In the past, when they organized, they contented themselves with a major win — prohibition or the right to vote, for example — and then returned to quiescence, allowing men to go about running the affairs of politics. But times have changed.

Women have learned that predominantly male governments produce policies and laws tottering somewhere between neutrality and outright harm to women — and have decided the solution must be to elect more officeholders sympathetic to their half of the population. So women have decided to learn the rules of the game and are ready to play to win.

The Reverend Jeanette Stokes of Greensboro, North Carolina, long active in the fight for the ERA, reflects on the increasing sophistication of North Carolina activists during six attempts to get the amendment passed: "With every successive fight, the forces got smarter. We made all the mistakes. We lobbied the wrong people at the wrong time, had the wrong people introduce the bill — the whole thing. But each time the women involved got more sophisticated about it. The effort even propelled several women into running for local offices themselves. And successfully."

The new activism involves political organizing, learning the techniques of politics, raising millions of dollars, and running candidates. The dollar figures alone are impressive. According to the November 1983 issue of Working Woman magazine, the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC) spent $550,000, the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) more than $646,000, and the National Organization for Women (NOW) about $3 million on the 1982 elections. By the autumn of 1983, 17 political action committees (PACs) had been formed to finance women's campaigns.

There is nothing revolutionary about the women's tactics. They rest on the assumption that politics is hard work, that women have not been part of the process, that education is necessary, that victory is not only possible but probable.

NARAL is one of the many groups that have organized around women's issues. In this case, around just one issue — keeping abortion safe and legal. NARAL's effort cuts across party, class, and racial lines, mobilizing some 170,000 people in the past three years. As those who wish to outlaw abortion have grown more strident, NARAL's membership has grown both in numbers and in its ability to counter that threat. The two sides fight it out in the state-houses and in Washington as one side attempts to infringe abortion rights and the other tries not only to save them but also to make those rights available to all women equally. (Medicaid and federal insurance programs do not pay for abortions in most states.)

A near-perfect illustration of the national schizophrenia on this issue can be found in North Carolina. As one NARAL-NC member observes, "We're one of the few states that has an abortion fund. And we're one of the few states that has a senator who will vote against everything that has to do with women and children and their well-being." Perhaps nowhere else is the political environment so raw, yet proponents of pro-choice so well organized.


NARAL-NCs History

Almost immediately after the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 made abortions legal — though not necessarily accessible — anti-choice people began organizing to try to reverse the court's ruling. Right-to-life became a major plank in the platform of the Moral Majority, while pro-choice people formed NARAL and its various state affiliates to counteract the strategy of the Right.

In North Carolina people formed chapters in Charlotte, Guilford County, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill in 1977. Lorna Chafe, one of the first members in Chapel Hill, recalls that their chapter concentrated on education. They held several forums to talk about the issue and distributed literature. They also monitored the state legislature and started a phone tree: when relevant legislation was being debated they activated the phone tree to get many people to contact the appropriate elected officials personally.

After a few years it became obvious that this activity was just not enough to ensure that abortion remained an option for all women. During programs, Chafe notes, people would ask the same questions about morality. "We were getting impatient with that, felt it was time to go further — to take people who knew how they felt on the issue and work towards keeping the legislation pro-choice. Our goal wasn't to try to convert anyone."

At the same time other state affiliates, in contact with each other, were developing politically successful organizing tactics. As the Moral Majority picked up steam before the 1980 national election, NARAL decided to develop a concerted strategy — Impact 80 — to counteract the Moral Majority hit list. The effort proved too little too late: that election brought the defeat of staunch pro-choice senators Birch Bayh, Frank Church, Warren Magnuson, George McGovern, and John Culver, and the victory of an anti-choice president and a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate.

NARAL members regrouped. Impact 80 became Impact 80s, and the vision grew broader. Organizers developed a multi-level national strategy not for just one victory but for the long haul. Its goal was to elect prochoice candidates throughout the '80s and to educate, politicize, and train American women.

Here NARAL-NC came into its own as the leading proponent of abortion rights and of organizing women to address women's issues. North Carolina was targeted as a state important to the national abortion issue because it has state funding for abortions for poor women and a legislature that consistently votes for choice. Thus, if a U.S. constitutional amendment outlawing abortion had come to a state-by-state vote, as seemed likely in 1981 and 1982, North Carolina was a probable member of the 17-state bloc needed to defeat it.

The state is even more important in 1984. Jesse Helms, one of its U.S. senators, is the champion of the national anti-choice forces. NARAL considers his current re-election race against Governor Jim Hunt to be "a campaign of national significance," one of the most critical elections of the year. Helms is the proclaimed leader of the right-to-life movement and the Moral Majority, and other anti-choice senators have backed off in acknowledgment of his leadership.

In the summer of 1983, the constitutional amendment to nullify Roe v. Wade, called the Hatch Amendment in honor of Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, failed in the U.S. Senate by one vote less than a simple majority. Although an amendment needs a two-thirds vote to pass, the message was clear that the Senate is half anti-choice; a bill which requires only a majority might easily pass. In November 1983 President Reagan signed into law a measure that for one year bans abortion coverage, except in medical emergencies, by federal employee health insurance plans. Another provision of this law, the well-known brain child of Congressman Henry Hyde of Illinois, prohibits the use of Medicaid funds for abortions.

Helms has another constitutional amendment, the Respect Human Life Amendment, which he introduces periodically; it would make these two measures permanent law and introduce other severe funding restrictions on any health program related to abortion. And he and his allies have recently begun a new campaign: to increase the size of the Supreme Court; the additional justices, who Ronald Reagan could then appoint, would probably be anti-choice and could help to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Leaders of the Right have vowed to support Helms's campaign. Robert Tobin of the Committee in Defense of Life says, "The [defeat of the Hatch Amendment] will galvanize the Right-to-Life forces for the 1984 elections because President Reagan alone can add the fifth and decisive justice to the Supreme Court to reverse the Roe Case.'' And Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell, preaching to an assembly of ministers and lay people in Charlotte, pronounced (according to the Charlotte Observer of July 6, 1983): "If for some reason a determination were made that we are a benevolent dictatorship and only one person could run it — I couldn't want that, never going to have it — I wouldn't have to think twice. I'd say Jesse Helms. He is a national treasure."

Recognizing the importance thus attached to the right-to-life agenda by the political Right, the NARAL Foundation developed an extensive, sophisticated training program for organizers of its state affiliates and found seed money to hire staff. Within a few months of being hired, every staff member goes to a three-and-a-half-day workshop on basic organizing skills; a more advanced one is offered periodically. Workshops on the use of the media and on fundraising have also been developed, so a state affiliate can send different staff for training in particular skills and interests. Wendy Berg, a North Carolina organizer, recently attended the latest of the workshops, electoral training to prepare for the 1984 elections. She says it was "superb." The role of the statewide NARAL-PAC board in relation to the state board, the role of staff in the 1984 campaigns, how to negotiate with candidates, how to target campaigns and candidates within the state, and how to keep the affiliate alive and thriving during all this electoral work are among the topics covered.


Organizational Structure

The organizers of NARAL cherish the membership. Marilyn Butler was the first staffperson hired for North Carolina, in 1981, and she is now director of NARAL-NC. She had been on the staff of the state's Public Interest Research Group and brought to NARAL skills learned there and in the civil rights, feminist, and peace movements. She says, "When I was hired, I sat in the office by myself and I looked around. I had a card file and I had a board that was spread everywhere in the state. I went through the membership list and found all the Raleigh and Durham members, people who had given money to NARAL-NC at some point in the last four years. I called them and told them what we were doing and said that this stuff was different from what we'd done in the past. And some of them were real excited about it, and I asked those people to either host a house meeting themselves, give me names of their friends to invite, or phone their friends to come to a house meeting, or whatever. Volunteers have been the backbone of NARAL-NC from the beginning. I cannot stress that enough."

The house meeting is NARAL's fundamental building block. Twelve to 20 pro-choice people gather in someone's home to learn about abortion rights and how they can get involved. There is a presentation on the status and history of abortion rights at the national and state levels, and then people are asked to contribute money and time. The speaker describes numerous tasks — all broken down so they can be done easily and efficiently — and asks the guests to host meetings in their own homes. Everyone is asked for a list of their pro-choice friends who might be invited to future meetings. Some 2,000 different people have attended in North Carolina during the past two-and-a-half years.

Butler describes how the movement grew: "After the first house meeting, we got more hosts to sign up to do a house meeting, and for every house meeting I would call three phoners, a month ahead of time, and ask them to make phone calls, send them the list, and get back to them. Eventually I got one of them to be the phone coordinator, so there were four people involved in each house meeting besides me. And eventually people that had signed up to do speaking got training, where we taught them the basics of how to speak in public and what to say. They went with me to a couple of house meetings, and then they did one of their own and became volunteer speakers."

The structure of NARAL demands that members continually learn new and more advanced political skills. Besides the phoning and phone-banking and training as house meeting speakers, volunteers can learn the fundamentals of politics at skills workshops. These workshops, says Butler, are meant to "de-mystify the political process. They are an introduction for people who have never been involved in grassroots politics or campaigns and are intimidated by the idea of walking cold into a campaign office when they don't know the basic structure of a campaign or the jargon."

The workshops, planned by a committee of 12 to 18 NARAL volunteers, feature a panel consisting of elected officials, campaign workers, and some volunteers who speak on particular aspects of political work. The topics are fundamental: what it means to be partisan, what is the difference between a primary and an election, how anyone can work on a campaign. The result: people who have never before registered to vote are suddenly motivated to work on a campaign and to get others to work too.

One volunteer who typifies this pattern is Tracy Sloop, a native of Wilmington, North Carolina, now living in Raleigh. She signed up for more information at a booth at the state fair and received an invitation to join NARAL-NC. She was one of the first people Butler called when the Raleigh office opened. Sloop recalls, "I had done no volunteer work at all until Marilyn contacted me. NARAL would just call and ask if I'd be interested in doing something, and if I was, I would. I started at the bottom, with phone calls, that sort of thing. As things moved along, I volunteered a lot, so I've been involved in almost everything they did. I was more interested in doing things for NARAL, rather than getting involved in politics, because I'm a federal employee and not allowed to work on a campaign. But this is an issue, so I can work with it. I can get other people interested in NARAL, and interested in politics, and work around it that way."

Sloop recently coordinated a political skills workshop by herself and thinks that the importance of learning about the political process cannot be over-emphasized: "I had never even voted until I got involved with NARAL and started realizing that people can make a difference. I was always under the impression that politics was dirty and that politicians were all crooks. As I started doing things with NARAL, I realized that you can make a difference, and if you're well-organized, you can make a big difference."

She got interested in the abortion rights issue as an extension of her concern that women have the power to control their bodies. It angered her that most government officials are men: "I looked around, and the people that were saying that women could not make decisions for themselves, that they had to go out and bear children whether they wanted to or not, were male, and could never know what that meant and never have it apply to them or affect them. And it struck me as not quite fair."

Sloop has also worked extensively on another major aspect of NARAL strategy — fundraising (see box on p. 31). The organization sees this work not only as the way to keep itself alive but also as another way to train volunteers in skills that will translate to campaign work.

Butler explains, "We work fundraising into our planning and we see fundraising as part of the process of leadership development and organization building. And we set our sights high; we don't put two months into a fundraiser that's only going to bring in $1,000. We decide that we're going to bring in $4,000 or $5,000, and we are able to get together the committee with the energy to do that. We rely on our members to sell tickets and keep things medium-priced so that a lot of people can come and have a good time. We make the events fun.

"In the process, people learn. People who have never done it before learn the principles of good fundraising: how to plan for it, how to do the project matrix [which involves going through each category of things to be done, dividing up each task, placing those components on a week sheet and eventually on a timeline so that everyone knows what needs to happen what week]. We don't think that volunteers should be involved only in the political work; we think they should be involved in making the organization go, keeping us alive, and learning all the skills. That's a lot of its success. And people think it's fun.

"The committee gets real up about it, about doing a lot of work and raising a lot of money — being successful. But it does require that you know how volunteers fit in from the very beginning, and if you're in an organization that doesn't have a membership or constituency to speak of, if nobody's ever been asked to do anything, then it might be hard to carry something like that off, because it does require large numbers of people who are willing to put in some work."


All of this planning and strategizing — the house meetings, fundraisers, and gradual building of the political and public skills of the membership — has resulted in an organization currently supporting four full-time staff with a membership base of 3,000 and an annual budget of $54,000. In August 1983 the staff and board decided it was time to organize a political action committee. Butler explains the need: "What we've been working for all this time is to get people involved in the elections, and we can't do that with NARAL-NC because of its tax-exempt status. What we needed was a vehicle to make good what we say we're going to do. We have the direct hands-on ability to turn people out for elections. Our expertise and our skill is in turning out a large number of people to do some activity, and that's what we would do in a very concerted way with a campaign."

Butler anticipates that the NARAL PAC would organize its membership very systematically, not only to ensure that NARAL gets credit for victories but also so the membership can continue to develop political skills: "We know how to treat volunteers in a way that's respectful and makes it a good experience. We are selfish in that way: we don't want our members to have a bad experience. We want them to want to come back again and to feel good about what they're doing. We'll try to keep the work itself educational and oriented to leadership development, so that people can be involved in a campaign on their own and eventually run a campaign or run for office."

This concern that the political experience be palatable and positive rather than intimidating is valid, given the constituency of NARAL. The state movement for the ERA, the state NOW, and the Women's Political Caucus attract politically active women, but the NARAL membership comes from a previously untapped population: predominantly young, educated, politically inactive white middle-class women. Many of the women attending house meetings are not registered to vote. Most have lived their mature lives with abortion an assumed right, and the possibility that the right could be denied hits them at a gut level. Minority and poor white women have not responded actively to the abortion rights issue, and NARAL members, like other progressive predominantly white organizations, have agonized over why these women do not respond and if there is a moral or practical imperative to try to get them involved.

Jeanette Stokes, NARAL-NC board chair, reflects on several dimensions of the issue: "I think that abortion is a good issue around which to organize middle and upper-class white women because most of them have some experience with it. My belief is that justice is this big kind of ball that people come at from all points, but once you get inside the hope is that you'll see all the connections. That what's going on in El Salvador is connected with how much secretaries are paid and whether they get to go home when their children are sick. I think it's responsible to try to draw people into the struggle for justice at whatever point they can understand it.

"If you're talking to farmers, you talk about the price of crops. If you're talking to upper-class white women you talk about some issue they have experienced some pain around. And abortion for a lot of women is a real issue. They have daughters or sisters or friends that have dealt with it. The important thing is to get people involved in the struggle for justice.

"It's similar to the role of black women in the state fight for the ERA. For a long time black women were saying, 'Leave us alone. Yes, we think that women's rights are important, but our particular history does not make us want to tromp all over black men like you guys want to tromp all over white men. It's not their fault. Yes, they may be sexist, but they've also gotten kicked in the head just as much as black women.' I think that if we really want to be fair, and interracial, we've got to be willing to sit down and put all the issues on the table, and try to decide which are the most important. I doubt that we'd find that for black women abortion is top. When I look at the issues that most affect the poorest women in this country, they are food stamps, AFDC, organized labor — and abortion rights get all tangled up."

Nonetheless, NARAL is concerned that its appeal is limited almost exclusively to white middle-class women. In 1984, NARAL plans to broaden its constituency by concentrating on getting rid of the Hyde Amendment which prohibits Medicaid coverage of abortion. A candidate's position on abortion funding for poor women will be used to measure the extent and sincerity of that candidate's pro-choice stance. In this way, NARAL hopes to mobilize women across racial and economic boundaries. At the state level, organizers will begin to reach out to black churches and student groups, and do neighborhood canvassing.

For Marilyn Butler, this new strategy of expanding the organization's work on abortion is required in her interpretation of the NARAL mission statement: "To develop and sustain a constituency which effectively uses the political process at the state and national level to guarantee to every woman in the United States the right to choose and obtain a legal abortion." She explains, "The important thing about this is that women have the right to choose, that they can make up their own minds about whether they are going to bear a child at this time in their lives. The right to choose means that poor women have the right to choose as well. It doesn't matter if abortion is legal if you can't afford to pay for it."

North Carolina is one of nine or 10 states — and the only one in the South — with some sort of public funds for abortions. Because North Carolina has a strong pro-choice legislature (which has gotten progressively stronger in the last few elections), the abortion fund remains intact; in fact, it was increased from $1 million in 1982 to $1.374 million in 1983. But this money is available only to the poorest of the poor — the eligibility level is well below that of Medicaid and other social services. Many ineligible women still cannot afford abortions and therefore are still not free to make a choice.

Freedom to choose is what NARAL organizing is all about, but NARAL organizers see many connections with other women's issues. Butler explains, "Although we've been focusing on abortion rights specifically, philosophically we feel that those rights have to do with the right of a woman to control her childbearing and in a sense


Fundraising is central to NARAL's organizing. The staff uses fundraising activities to train volunteers in skills which transfer easily to electoral activity. In the process, volunteers come to view the organization as more their own: they work hard to pay the staff and the expenses.

The key to NARAL-NC's successful fundraising plan is diversity: if one source does not come through or a particular fundraising event is less successful than anticipated, other sources can make up the difference. NARAL-NC has never counted on foundation money. "We have to hustle for all the money we get," says Butler. "We're not in the funding boom-or-bust cycle, where you have money and then all of a sudden you don't have money because they decide not to fund you that year."

From December 1, 1982, through November 30, 1983, NARAL-NC raised and spent a total of $53,151. National NARAL allotted the state organization $16,250 for the year as a targeted state. (That money has strings: NARAL-NC agreed to do a joint fundraising event with the national organization, to send staff to national trainings and be national trainers, and to submit reports to the national office.) House meetings and dues from members brought in an additional $10,605. Big donors contributed $4,090, and in 1984 NARAL-NC plans to devote additional attention to this area, seeing it as an untapped resource. The membership will be used to make the initial contacts with potential big donors. The largest portion of NARAL-NC's budget in 1983, $19,490, came from grassroots events: swim-a-thons, where people pledged money based on the distance volunteers would swim; barndance/auctions; and Jazz for Choice.

Jazz for Choice is an annual NARAL-NC fundraiser held in Raleigh at a restaurant near the office. The event is as much social as financial: musicians play throughout the evening, while people eat and drink. Some money comes from selling tickets (251 at $7.50 each in 1983), but most of the fundraising occurs at the auction. The biggest items are sold with the help of an auctioneer, but most items are sold by a silent auction. People write their bids down, and at the end of the evening the highest bid wins. Local stores and NARAL supporters donate the auction items. The 1983 Jazz for Choice raised a total of $5,444; expenses were $950, leaving a profit for the evening of $4,494. Twelve volunteers coordinated the event, and they arranged for most of the other work (ticket design, program design, auctioneer, musicians, printing) to be donated. Thirty-two other people helped sell tickets.

her own body. As long as women don't have this control, then there's no way that women really have equality or can be free to make decisions in other parts of their lives. Equality for women, and equal pay, and equal chance for employment, cannot exist if a woman is being forced to have a child. The freedom isn't here, and it's related to a lot of other questions of economics and opportunity and racism."

NARAL organizer Wendy Berg adds: "The organizing strategy is based on the principle of people becoming involved in issues that affect their lives. This leads to learning how to hold candidates accountable, which requires women to become more involved in the democratic and political processes in this country. Women need more power in that process. NARAL shows women a way to get that power."

The next step for women working on a single issue, such as abortion, is to form coalitions with other social justice groups. NARAL has already begun joining with other groups in the state in their efforts to influence the 1984 elections and put people in office who will work for social justice, and coalitions are where the gender gap becomes a powerful force.

In North Carolina, as elsewhere, the various women's organizations have worked individually and collectively to develop a fighting constituency. They have laid the groundwork for active democratic participation and have learned the rules — when to strike off by themselves and when to join with issue-sympathetic politicians and "hold their noses," as one ERA worker puts it. They are determined to put good people in office, and they know that their own members can do at least as good a job as those now in office. Jeanette Stokes says, "I want to get legislation passed. The best way to get that done is to be a legislator. The next best way is to work on the campaign. The ultimate goal is to get more women, women who share my concerns, elected to office."