News: NOW What?

Conference helps women hone their political skills

 
Jymi Bolden


Marian Spencer, the first African-American woman elected to Cincinnati City Council, would like to have started 20 years earlier.



Along with raising families and balancing careers, today's women have an added responsibility — finding their political voice.

This weekend the Ohio State Conference of the National Organization for Women (NOW), hosted by the Cincinnati chapter, focuses on "The Political Woman: Past, Present and Future."

The conference features three local political leaders discussing the past, present and future of women on Cincinnati City Council, whose nine members now includes only two women. Former Mayor Bobbie Sterne, former City Councilwoman Marian Spencer and former council candidate Laketa Cole present a panel discussion moderated by Jane Anderson, who also unsuccessfully ran for city council in 2001.

'We have to be stronger'
Cole finished in 10th place in the 2001 election — one spot away from winning a seat on council. She's a former aide to Councilman Paul Booth and also worked in the office of former Councilman Dwight Tillery.

Cole, who quit her job in Booth's office to run for council as an independent, says it's difficult for women to raise money to run for office.

"Had I been a male, I probably would have been able to raise more money," she says.

The candidates who raise the most money for campaigns are usually men, according to Cole. She says part of this might have to do with the fact that women typically earn less than men and have less disposable income to contribute to political causes.

"Women are going to be thinking about their families as opposed to be contributing to a campaign," Cole says.

Spencer served on Cincinnati City Council from 1983 through 1985. She was the first African-American woman elected to council.

"Women had to fight to get the vote in the first place," she says.

Once women won the right to vote, the next task was to convince them to exercise that right even though they hadn't necessarily been raised in environments that encouraged it, according to Spencer.

Women began to see that they could get involved in politics beyond just showing up at the voting booths, she says. They could also get their names on the ballot.

"When we began to, we found that our voices were just as important as men and certainly just as powerful," Spencer says.

Women on city council often ended up on committees such as human relations. But Spencer wanted to be on a committee that was considered one of the most powerful, so she got herself appointed to the law committee.

"Law, finance — the powerful committees were more often reserved for men," she says. "Unless the woman shows strength, she's bypassed."

For women, having a female voice on these committees was vital, especially when it came to open access for jobs.

"When we discussed issues that had to do with gender, we would vote for the women's position," Spencer says.

Spencer was a Charterite on council, which allowed her to vote independently.

"We were not instructed as Charterites as to how we should vote," she says.

Spencer says the way council is elected today means it usually takes large amounts of money to win a seat, especially for newcomers. That, she says, is why the Charter Committee worked so hard for campaign finance reform last year.

Diversity in politics is still a struggle.

"I think women have a harder time getting on but they're more apt to think for themselves," Spencer says. "I didn't get back, but I would have remained outside if it meant that I had to reorder my positions. What we really say is when we get there we have to be stronger than our male counterparts, because we didn't get there easily."

Spencer was 63 years old when the Charter Committee asked her to run.

"I said, 'Why didn't you come to when I was 43? I could have given you 20 more years,' " she recalls.

The political climate can have a large effect on whether women get elected, according to Spencer.

"I think it gets progressively harder as you get more conservative leadership," she says.

Campaigning against Wal-Mart
The guest speaker at a luncheon Saturday is Kim Gandy, national president of NOW. In 1991 Gandy directed the WomenElect 2000 Project. The project was a nine-month grassroots organizer and recruiting effort in Louisiana that tripled the number of women in the legislature.

Other speakers for the NOW conference include Mary Pierce Brosmer, founder of Women Writing for (a) Change; U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott, speaking about the role of the judicial branch in politics; and the Rev. Annie Foerster, speaking on "Reclaiming Spirituality from the Radical Right."

NOW's political activity extends beyond elections. The organization has started a consumer campaign against Wal-Mart, labeling the retail giant a "Merchant of Shame."

"We have considered the extensive public record on cases filed against Wal-Mart and found the allegations disturbing," literature from NOW says. "They are sex discrimination in pay, promotion and compensation, wage abuse, exclusion of contraceptive coverage in insurance plans, violations of child labor laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Cases have also been filed regarding firing pro-union workers, eliminating jobs once workers joined unions and discouraging workers from unionizing. In addition, Wal-Mart continues to refuse to dispense Preven, the 'morning after pill.' "

Bill Wertz, spokesman for Wal-Mart, says the company provides jobs for women and supports causes that benefit women. The designation "Merchant of Shame" is "undeserved," according to Wertz.

"Wal-Mart is the preferred shopping destination for millions of women across the country," he says.

Asked to comment on allegations of discrimination, Wertz says, "The organization is referring to lawsuits against the company that are still pending and it's unfortunate in my opinion that they have prejudged the outcome."



The NOW conference meets Saturday and Sunday at the Cincinnati Marriott Northeast. For more information on registration, call 513-852-9948. For more information on NOW, visit www.now.org.

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