As I wrote last week, women's reproductive rights have been front and center this past year. Thanks to the president's denunciation of the Defense of Marriage Act, gay rights have stayed in the conversation, too. Still, when I landed in Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention, I wasn't sure how much these issues would be placed in the limelight. The official Republican program, with the exception of Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, aimed their daggers elsewhere—namely, at Obama's economy. Some speakers made an oblique reference to "life" or "the sanctity of marriage," but the RNC clearly made a decision to sidestep the minefield of social issues.
The Democrats, as I discovered this week, didn't shy away from these issues at all. Dozens of speakers, like Deval Patrick and Michelle Obama, mentioned LGBT equality over the past three days. Rep. Barney Frank, who is openly gay and married his partner last year, spoke on Thursday, as did Tammy Baldwin, a lesbian who is running for Congress. Zach Wahls, the 21-year Iowan whose speech defending his two mothers went viral on YouTube, also addressed the crowd. (There were no openly gay people on the RNC stage, unless you count former Olympian Scott Hamilton, and he didn't say a word.) President Obama even gave a shoutout to the "gays" last night.
There also seemed to be a special emphasis on reproductive rights. Several convention veterans told me that although organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL have always been featured prominently, the party was more willing to spotlight these issues in 2012.
"The difference is the level of official references to abortion—very new," said former president of Catholics For a Free Choice Frances Kissling, in an email to me. Indeed, NARAL president Nancy Keenan mentioned the word "abortion" more than once in her prime time speech, along with the phrases "rape is rape" and "Roe v. Wade." Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student and women's health advocate made famous by Rush Limbaugh, spoke about a bill Paul Ryan supported, which would "allow pregnant women to die preventable deaths in our emergency rooms." And Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards uttered the name of the man many Republicans wish would shut up and slink away: Todd Akin. All in front of millions of Americans.
"The issue of choice is huge in 2012 and very different than it was, quite honestly, in '08," said Keenan in an interview with Raw Story. She said Republicans have been targeting women's health issues for a while, but the debate "was never elevated to the point that it has been the last couple of years, especially around health care and their attacks on contraception." On the other hand, she characterized Obama as a particularly pro-choice president. The combination of these two dynamics produced a stark difference, one that Democrats chose to play up during the DNC program.
Take Sandra Fluke as an example. She tweeted at 8:09 p.m. Wednesday night that was "getting ready to go onstage." Forty-five minutes later, she still hadn't stepped up to the podium. Some people worried she'd been bumped—but it turned out the show organizers just wanted to give a more prominent spot.
"They came to me and said they were moving things around and would it be okay if I spoke a little later?" Fluke told me over the phone Thursday night. "I said 'wherever, whenever'…I think [the delay] helped produce a big spike on Twitter. There was a lot of Twitter activity when folks didn't see me, but the peak of activity was while I was speaking."
Aside from Fluke's last-minute bump, former Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt didn't see much of a difference in the 2012 lineup, per se; she remembers speaking in prime time in 2004 (along with NARAL's president). The distinction, as Keenan alluded to, is the candidate.
"Unfortunately we had a dud of a candidate whose campaign did not have the good sense to do what Obama has done and put these issues, and women, front and center," she told me, referring to former presidential candidate John Kerry.
Fluke also threw some credit to the president.
"It's a big part of this convention because it's a big part of who the president is," she said. "He's shown us over the last four years that he stands with American women."
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Nona Willis Aronowitz is an editor and writer who thinks a lot about love, sex and politics. She tweets at @nona.
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