The ladies man

Kate Michelman, lifelong feminist and former head of NARAL, talks about why she's signed up to work for John Edwards.

By Rebecca Traister
Published January 29, 2007 12:00PM (EST)

With the Democratic presidential field full to bursting a year before the first primaries and caucuses, contenders have already gotten grabby over campaign staffs, consultants, celebrity spokespeople and fundraising powerhouses. Further gumming up the assembly of political machinery is the historic nature of campaigns by a female candidate, Hillary Clinton, and an African-American, Barack Obama. As a result, perhaps, primary teams are defying expectations and conventional wisdom.

One of the most unexpected alliances announced in these early days has been the hiring of leading women's rights advocate Kate Michelman by former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Michelman's new role, as a senior advisor to the Edwards campaign, has surprised many who might have assumed that the former head of NARAL Pro-Choice America would have automatically reported for duty at Camp Hillary, where women's history may be in the making.

Michelman spoke by phone to Salon about her decision to hitch her star to the Edwards campaign.

What is your role in the campaign?

I am a senior advisor. I will advise on message, strategy and organizational development as we move from state to state. I hope to contribute to fundraising. And I am going to spend a great deal of my time organizing women for Edwards. National security, foreign relations, healthcare, education, the economy -- it takes deliberate and careful thought as to how women see these issues, and I hope to play a role in focusing on how each of the issues can be discussed in ways that are more meaningful to women. The other important role I will play is as a surrogate for John. I will travel the country and speak to groups and rallies for John when he can't be there or when [his wife] Elizabeth can't be there. The goal will be educating people about John's views, his mission, and inspiring commitment to John's vision, with particular emphasis on the future of women's role in society.

Do you think women think differently than men on every issue?

No. I don't mean to say that every issue has a male and female component. But I do think there are issues women approach with a different perspective, often a very personal perspective. Men approach reproductive rights from a policy perspective, and women think about it from a personal point of view, obviously because reproductive decision-making is so compelling a reality in women's lives. So we start with the personal and build out to policy. Women do that on many issues, and I want to just remind the campaign about that. On issues like national security or the threat of terrorism, you can add to the discussion the security of families. Often in campaigns there hasn't been a sensibility about how to communicate to women. But John has a keen understanding of these things, and is very sensitive to how women think about issues.

What issues loom largest for women voters right now?

Women care about national security; there's a foreboding that women feel. Violence in society is a major concern; whether that translates to support for gun control or not is another issue. How a candidate views the selection of Supreme Court justices is not an issue that polls high, but it is of great concern. Then there is the economy; we have so many single women, many women in poverty, many working women, who are struggling to make ends meet, that the security of jobs is a big concern, and healthcare is an enormous issue for women. Also, quality education for their families, as well as their rights and liberties.

Women's rights and liberties do not come up straightaway when you poll people about which issues are most compelling to them. But some of those deeper values women expect from a candidate include the value of a woman's rights to dignity, to equality, to privacy, a woman's right to determine the course of her life, to equal pay, to healthcare. They may not poll as "issues" like healthcare or education, but they are factors that contribute to a way that a voter sees a candidate.

Have you ever played this role in another presidential campaign?

No, because until 2004, I ran NARAL for 20 years. There, I ran campaigns in presidential contexts, trying to move voters to a particular candidate. And in 2004, I served at the DNC [Democratic National Committee] as chair of the Campaign to Save the Court. But I have never served on a presidential candidate's team before.

Al Gore hired Naomi Wolf as a consultant in 2000; she memorably advised him to wear earth tones, or so it was reported. But aside from that, have other candidates hired prominent feminists to advise their campaigns at high levels, or is your position a first?

Well, there aren't that many of us who have held national women's rights leadership positions. I'm thinking back to Mondale, and I don't think he had a national women's rights leader on his team, but there were organizations like NOW advising him because of [Geraldine] Ferraro. I do think that if not totally unique, that it is rather unusual to have someone like me at a high level as a part of a campaign.

And, clearly, he asked you very early on in the campaign.

Yes, very early on. So I think that says a lot about his seriousness and commitment to addressing the experiences of women in society. I think it speaks very well of him. And while I've been a leader on women's liberties and equality, I'm known mostly for my work on reproductive rights, which could make a candidate feel somewhat reluctant or questioning. But it didn't with John and Elizabeth.

I have often felt that in the past, campaigns have paid lip service to women, or treated them as a constituency. Well, excuse me. I hate to be treated as a constituency. We are people. We are a force, a vital centerpiece of society as a whole -- and in the past I have felt insulted that issues of concern to women have been given only lip service. But John is doing anything but that. Bringing someone like me on board is a real statement about that.

What made you choose to come aboard his campaign and not someone else's?

I chose John Edwards for a number of reasons. I got to know him when he was running for the Senate for the first time in North Carolina, and over the years I've been in the political world, he's one of the finest people I've ever known, in terms of his values, his views, and just as a person. So I start from being someone who admires him and considers him a good friend.

My choice to support him was made in full consideration of all the candidates. Each has real strengths, and frankly any of them would make us safer and prouder [than we are now]. It's a field of the best of the best, from Hillary to Barack to [Gov. Bill] Richardson to Governor Vilsack. But, again, my personal view of John is that he stands for what he believes in -- he has never backed down or retreated from a woman's right to choose; he understands as a lawyer, as a senator, as the father of two daughters, and as a husband what the right to equality for women means, and he understands personally what the experience of women in society is.

His emphasis on poverty is also of particular interest to me because of two experiences in my life. My early entrance into social activism as a young person was first focused on economic inequality, then moved on to the civil rights movement, and then on to the women's rights movement. His emphasis on the injustice of economic disparity is very important to me, [especially since] his work on poverty is with a full understanding of the particular impact poverty has on women and children. The second experience is that there was a period in my own life when I found it necessary to go on welfare, when I didn't have any resources, or healthcare, when I didn't know quite how I was going to feed my children as a single mother of three young girls. I had no job, no car, no nothing. It was a frightening time. And it put me right in the center of the experience of women who every single day of their lives don't know how they are going to take care of their families and don't know how to get out of it.

There are issues that have not been addressed as women have taken on more responsibilities. Society has not kept pace with the expanding roles of women. They are not only homemakers, but are working and contribute to the economic security of their families. They struggle to find quality affordable childcare, to work, to mother, to care for their own parents. It worries me that women think we've made all this progress and our journey is almost over. Well, it's not over. It's not over on many levels. And John understands that.

You must have realized that there would be eyebrows raised if you, a women's rights leader, threw your support behind a candidate other than Hillary Clinton, whose run for president is such a historic moment for American women.

Of course there was recognition that there would be questions asked. I gave it a lot of thought. I have three daughters and a granddaughter; I've been working for women's rights for nearly 30 years.

Hillary's run is historic. And there was a certain part of me that said, "How could you not be a part of this given all you've worked for?" And I do think it is really exciting and important and Hillary is a very fine candidate. But, again, for me, John's vision was very compelling. And women are not going to vote only because we have a woman running, but rather look at who will do the most for women and families. That's not to say that Hillary or Barack or Bill Richardson won't do good things for women. I just don't think it's an automatic vote [for Hillary] because you're a woman, though many women [may] feel they have to support the first woman candidate. Women will also be looking at the candidates' views, and at whether the candidates will lead them in the way they want to be led. I've never been known to do the expected, I suppose.

Have you received any negative reaction from people who see your choice not to work for Hillary as a betrayal?

I haven't received any negative reactions, but numerous questions about why I joined John's team. I think it's a very legitimate and important question to ask. Last week I was talking with a group of women in New York who are strong advocates of the right to choose, and frankly, they're Hillary supporters who wanted to understand why I had done this. And so I explained it to them -- and, you know, it's not that I moved any of them away from supporting Hillary, because they care a lot about Hillary and all she represents and they are friends of hers -- but when I finished speaking with them about "why John" they could understand better. So, no, I haven't gotten questions in a critical or negative way, but from a perspective of really needing to understand. Why am I doing this? Why wouldn't I want to be aboard this historic [Clinton] campaign?

In the end, I will work for the Democratic candidate. They are all quality, and we are going to nominate a winner. I think it will be John Edwards. I want it to be John Edwards. But I have to answer those questions, starting with my own daughters.

Did your daughters object to your choice?

One of them was absolutely right there with me. She loves John. She's the most like me in her natural, instinctual interest in economic issues. Class and race are the two things that move her, so she's been following John's "two Americas" poverty issues, and said, "This is right, Mom." The other two I had to do my inspirational discussion with, about "why John." And now they're there.

Look, I knew that Hillary and Senator Obama were going to run, and that once they announced they were going to be the most focused on by the press. I had to ask myself if I was going to be second-guessing myself while this was happening. Because you have to be able to weather it all, to ask yourself: Is this right? Are you going to regret this? And the answer is resoundingly that I did the right thing.

I am a very positive person. I am not going to be in any way, shape or form negative about any candidate. My message is that John Edwards is an extraordinary candidate and is right for this time in history. I am not going to be negative about Hillary or anyone else.

But even when you say something positive about Edwards -- like that he has never wavered on reproductive rights -- won't it be read as a criticism of the other candidates, probably mostly of Hillary Clinton?

Certainly I know that everything I say about John can be read as a dig at Hillary, or at Barack Obama, even if it truly isn't meant that way. By virtue of saying, "Vote for John," I am saying, "and not for anybody else." It's necessarily got a negative component to it.

But again I have no problems saying this -- I don't think it diminishes John in any way -- that each of the other candidates is extraordinary is his or her own way, mostly his. I know Bill Richardson, I have worked with him. I have worked with Hillary to some degree, less so with Barack, but I can see the quality of the man. We would have a better America with any of them. I just happen to think that John Edwards is the best of the best.

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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Hillary Rodham Clinton John Edwards