The National Organization for Women came out swinging for Hillary Clinton in 2015, more than a year before the Democratic National Convention, announcing they were “all-in” for a candidate they heralded as a “trailblazer for women.”
This election cycle, things are different. NOW president Toni Van Pelt said the group won’t be endorsing anyone in the Democratic primary—and not for a lack of options.
“The point for us is that we’re advocating for all and any of these women to be president. We’re not singling out, we’re not pitting any one against the other,” Van Pelt told The Daily Beast. “For us, it’s a win-win-win-win-win.”
The record-breaking six women in the 2020 Democratic primary has created a somewhat ironic quandary for NOW and other women’s groups: how to pick between multiple pro-choice, self-proclaimed feminist women running for president?
For some, the answer may be not to endorse at all.
“Right now we are very happy that there are so many women running,” said Christina Reynolds of Emily’s List, a political action committee dedicated to getting pro-choice women elected.
“I don't think you'll see us make an endorsement—certainly not anytime soon. ”
Emily’s List was the first women’s group to endorse Clinton in the 2016 race, declaring its support in April 2015. Since then, however, choices have gotten trickier. The 2018 midterms saw a record number of women running—and a record number of women running against each other. The organization’s decision to give one of their coveted endorsements to one pro-choice, Democratic woman over another in those primaries occasionally raised eyebrows.
Reynolds, the group’s vice president of communications, said Emily’s List doesn’t usually wade into women-vs.-women primaries unless they believe an endorsement will make the difference between a woman or a man being elected. In terms of 2020, she said, the group is focused on congressional and state races, and on calling out misogynistic attacks against all of the presidential contenders.
“Right now these [presidential] candidates are doing a great job on their own,” Veronica said. “We see our role most importantly as talking about the importance of electing pro-choice Democratic women. So where that's a benefit to them, great.”
The decision is even more fraught for reproductive rights groups—though they insist the conundrum is a happy one. Both Planned Parenthood and NARAL endorsed Clinton in 2016, citing her perfect voting record and history of championing reproductive rights. In a statement at the time, then-Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards declared that “no other candidate in our nation’s history has demonstrated such a strong commitment to women or such a clear record on behalf of women’s health and rights.”
This time around, the choice is less clear-cut. Both NARAL and Planned Parenthood said they had no intentions of rolling out an endorsement any time soon.
The nominating convention is still more than a year away, and some groups said it is simply too early to be thinking about endorsements. Asked how her group was handling the primary, Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal joked: “We’re enjoying it!”
But Shaunna Thomas, executive director of women’s rights group UltraViolet, said she would be surprised if many of these organizations endorsed in the primary. UltraViolet did not endorse in 2016, and Thomas said that this year—with so many strong women candidates—there is little incentive for any women’s group to do so.
“There is all the incentive in the world for us to create the conditions for all of these candidates to continue to vie for women as a constituency and to center their needs,” she said. “I'd be shocked if women's groups jumped in to endorse a bunch of different candidates... if for no other reason than because we need all of them to center women.”
The historic number of women in the race has already pushed women’s issues to the forefront. Sen. Elizabeth Warren made affordable childcare her first major policy proposal, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has campaigned on her signature family leave act (and, somewhat controversially, on being a mother.) It’s also provided ample opportunity to call out sexism, whether in questions about Warren’s likability or the focus on Sen. Kamala Harris’ past relationships.
While women’s rights groups may eventually diverge on which candidate they support, they all agreed on one thing: More women running is a very good problem to have.
“When I was a kid… it was pretty unheard of for a woman to be in Congress, let alone president of the United States,” Smeal recalled. “And what this really means, with many running, is that we’re significantly enlarging the pool of the eligible and the dreams of many.”