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Celebrating 'Suffrage to Success': Are All Women Invited to the Party?

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina – As the board of the National Women's Political Caucus met here over the weekend, it was again an occasion to discuss the question: "Do you have to be pro-choice to be considered a feminist?" The leader of a group dedicated to electing progressive, pro-choice women takes her time answering.

"It's good to see women becoming leaders," Lulu Flores, president of the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC), told me. "Even conservative women should be seen as leaders," she said, noting that women have traditionally been the behind-the-scenes workhorses of political movements.

"But I frankly don't agree that they are feminists," Flores said. "A true feminist fights for the rights of all women" on issues such as access to health care, reproductive freedom and "truly having a place at the table."
Members of the Susan B. Anthony List, with its mission of "advancing, mobilizing and representing pro-life women," might disagree. The group has announced a 23-city "Votes Have Consequences" bus tour across Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania -- beginning Tuesday -- with the release of polling data in districts of pro-life Democrats who voted for the health care bill.

Michele Miller Houck, president of the N.C. Women's Political Caucus, host of the national board meeting, called feminism "the F-word of politics."

It's a continuing conversation among politicians, activists who support and oppose abortion rights, and the women of Woman Up, particularly now that the mantle is increasingly claimed by Sarah Palin and her conservative "mama grizzlies," like South Carolina's GOP gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley, hailed by Newsweek as "The Face of the New South."

The office-holders and candidates in next door North Carolina are more to the NWPC's liking. Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and Gov. Bev Perdue received endorsements during their campaigns. On Saturday, at an open-to-the-public "Suffrage to Success" event organized by the North Carolina Caucus, Democratic Senate nominee Elaine Marshall got the group's support and $1,000 from the caucus PAC to help in her tough November race against the Republican incumbent, Sen. Richard Burr.

Marshall, North Carolina's secretary of state, touted her work "in the trenches" taking on domestic violence reform, consumer protection regulations, aid to small businesses and other issues that affect women and families.

"She's the whole package," said Flores, who is based in Austin, Texas.

Still, on Saturday, following Marshall's short speech, an analysis on voting trends in the South by Martha Kropf, an associate professor at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, was titled "From Scarlett O'Hara to Nikki Haley." It ended with a nod to the conservative women leaders in the Tea Party.

Among its founders, NWPC lists both Ann Lewis, former political director of the Democratic National Committee, and Elly Peterson, former vice chair of the Republican National Committee. The caucus, founded as a multipartisan, grassroots organization in 1971, is also committed to passage of the Equal Rights Amendment ("It's still out there and we're still trying," Flores said) and dependent care for women trying to balance responsibility for children and aging relatives.

Finding Republican women to politically support became a challenge in the 1980's, "when the Republican Party moved considerably to the right," Flores said. "We can't seem to find" a lot of pro-choice Republican candidates. "The party platform doesn't permit being pro-choice, at least openly." Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine were previously endorsed by the caucus, said Flores, who praised their occasional forays across party lines.

Flores said Palin "took a page from our handbook" by running for local offices and moving up. "She has certainly staked out her place as a leader of this new movement and she's certainly smart," Flores said. "I wish that they were advancing rights for all women instead of being selective feminists."

NWPC is trying to build its base by involving young women and members of minority groups. In Laredo,Texas, Flores' father, Francisco Flores, was a founding member of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Lulu Flores, a lawyer, went on to work with Irma Rangel, the first Mexican-American woman elected to the Texas House of Representatives.

"Politics touches everything," Flores said. "Things happen in Washington and things happen in the statehouses," and "unless you're going to be part of the process you won't be able to influence the process."

Sounds like something Sarah Palin would say.

Click here to follow Mary C. Curtis on Twitter.

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