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Bernie Has an Impeccable History With the National Organization for Women. Biden Does Not.

Toni Van Pelt, the president of the National Organization for Women, recently warned that Bernie Sanders had done “next to nothing for women.” Which is strange, because NOW has praised Sanders as a staunch feminist ally throughout his career.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is joined on stage by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders during the Climate Crisis Summit at Drake University on November 9, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)

As the tussle over which leading Democratic candidate would receive Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) coveted endorsement escalated, one organization made its feelings clear: the National Organization for Women (NOW).

Urging Warren not to “rush into” anything, NOW President Toni Van Pelt told the Associated Press that “[Sen. Bernie] Sanders doesn’t have a record” and that he’s, “as far as we know, done next to nothing for women and for our issues.”

“We think that our constituents, our members, will not necessarily think of Sanders as the best choice,” Van Pelt said. Coming just four days before the pivotal primary in Michigan, the statement was widely interpreted as a show of support for former vice president Joe Biden.

Van Pelt’s words are somewhat surprising given the historical record. Though NOW has put its support behind Biden in the past, they have butted heads with him on matters of reproductive rights and his lackluster questioning of right-wing Supreme Court nominees throughout his career, with Biden often expressing frustration with it and other liberal groups. Meanwhile, at least at the state level, it is Sanders who has had a long-standing relationship with NOW, earning praise, support, and endorsements from the group over the decades.

“We Know He’s Going to Vote the Right Way”

Sanders’s support for NOW’s positions began early in his career. When running for reelection as mayor of Burlington in 1983 — his first since winning a surprise ten-vote victory over the incumbent and weathering two years of Democratic obstructionism — he attended a candidates forum in February hosted by the Champlain Valley chapter of NOW with his major party opponents. With Democrat Judith Stephany stressing her opposition to abortion, and Republican James Gilson refusing to reveal his stance, Sanders was the only candidate on stage to back abortion rights.

In 1986, Sanders attended an Addison County NOW chapter, praising its efforts to pass a state version of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). “Are women equal in the eyes of the Lord?” he asked the crowd rhetorically. “I think the answer is obvious.” Running for the Vermont governor’s office that year, Sanders and his two major party opponents all backed the ERA.

Sanders and NOW lined up on issues beyond those most obviously affecting women. In 1989, Sanders praised NOW’s “courageous action” in calling for the establishment of a progressive third party, a longtime goal of Sanders and the Vermont-based Progressive Coalition that backed him. NOW’s criticisms of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America mirrored Sanders’s opposition to the right-wing program, and in 1996, NOW picketed the White House and chanted “Shame!” over Bill Clinton’s signing of “welfare reform,” one of the contract’s central planks — and one that Sanders voted against and, like NOW, warned would hurt children.

Consequently, NOW praised and endorsed Sanders again and again over the course of his career.

In 1987, NOW’s Champlain Valley chapter endorsed Sanders for reelection as Burlington mayor, saying he had made “significant progress improving life for both women and children.” The organization cited funding for a battered women’s shelter and a childcare and teen center set up under his tenure.

Four years later, NOW condemned a Supreme Court decision permitting the government to forbid health or medical professionals who received Title X funding from advising people on abortion.

“Vermont women are fortunate to have the support of a pro-choice stand from Senators Leahy and Jeffords and Rep. Sanders,” wrote Susan Swan, president of the NOW chapter in the southern Vermont city of Bennington. Three years after that, the Bennington NOW chapter’s new president, Lynn Williams, again endorsed Sanders, praising, among other things, his opposition to welfare reform.

“As state coordinator of the Vermont chapter of the National Organization for Women, I keep in close touch with Bernie’s office on a whole range of issues and legislation that affect women,” NOW’s Judy Murphy told the Brattleboro Reformer that year. “Bernie has been fully supportive of our legislative agenda.” Murphy had provided a prepared statement to a press conference where five leaders of women’s groups, including a past president of the state’s NOW chapter and the executive director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault, endorsed him for reelection, saying in a joint statement that Sanders had “proven his commitment to improving the lives of women and families and to keeping our communities safe and healthy.”

This continued for years after. In 1996, Sanders received the endorsement of Darlene Palola, the Vermont NOW chapter’s legislative coordinator, over his Republican opponent Susan Sweeter and Democrat Jack Long. “Bernie is solid on women’s issues. He supports us 100 percent,” said Palola. “We know we can trust him.” Murphy likewise again endorsed Sanders, citing his “100 percent voting record on women’s rights issues” and that “we share his priorities.” That was also the year feminist Gloria Steinem came to Vermont to deem Sanders “an honorary woman,” citing his 100 percent rating from NOW.

In 1998, Sanders stood virtually alone among the state’s Democratic officials in receiving NOW’s endorsement. “He’s a congressman we don’t have to call,” said Murphy, now president of Vermont NOW. “We know he’s going to vote the right way.” That year, Vermont NOW refrained from giving endorsements to Democrats Sen. Patrick Leahy, Gov. Howard Dean, and Lt. Gov. Douglas Racine, as well as their Republican opponents. Leahy had voted for the “partial-birth abortion” ban, Dean had failed to fill out NOW’s questionnaire, and while Racine supported abortion rights, he hadn’t answered a question on gender pay equity.

Playing Patty-Cake

By contrast, though Biden and NOW haven’t had a uniformly antagonistic relationship throughout his career, they’ve often been at odds.

In 1975, Delaware’s NOW chapter took Biden to task for supporting a bill banning federal money from being used to encourage or perform abortions, calling it “blatantly discriminatory against women who must depend upon public facilities and/or federal programs to pay for their health services.” Despite presenting Biden with a joint petition with the ACLU, the National Council for Jewish Women, and the state task force on human reproduction, Biden held fast, and the bill ultimately became law.

In 1987, NOW vehemently opposed the nomination of Anthony Kennedy to the Supreme Court, particularly outraged at his 1985 ruling declaring that gender pay inequality didn’t violate a federal ban on sex discrimination in employment as long as there was no proof of a discriminatory motive. Calling Kennedy a “sexist, a person unwilling to help women in the struggle for equality,” NOW declared he would be a “disaster” on women’s issues.

Kennedy had been one of three judges suggested by Biden to then-president Ronald Reagan as “a mainstream conservative whom I can support,” after his previous two picks had failed. The first, Robert Bork, had been torpedoed in large part thanks to Biden’s coordination with liberal groups like NOW, though he had voted to confirm him to a lower court in 1982, lauded him as having the “earmarks of excellence,” and vowed to defy such liberal groups.

Rather than question Kennedy about his prior decisions, or even his membership of clubs that excluded women as members, Biden asked him questions about whether it was harder being a judge in Canada or the United States and whether he had read a particular book, hoping “we can all get out of here.” Civil rights lobbyist Joseph Rauh accused Biden and the rest of the committee of playing “patty-cake” with Kennedy. Once confirmed, Kennedy soon went on to side with the Court’s conservatives to weaken abortion rights, including in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision that opened up the law to a host of onerous restrictions on access to abortion.

This wasn’t NOW’s only criticism of Biden’s conduct relating to the Court. In 1986, NOW Vice President Sheri O’Dell, among other leading liberal groups, criticized Biden for not leading the charge against William Rehnquist’s nomination to the position of chief justice, saying: “He had a golden opportunity to make the case and he didn’t do it.” In 1991, NOW’s national secretary slammed Biden’s infamous mishandling of Clarence Thomas’s nomination and the sexual harassment allegations against him by Anita Hill, charging him and other Judiciary Committee members with doing “a disservice to the women of this country” by keeping her accusations hidden from the rest of the Senate.

One year earlier, Eric C. Harrah, president of NOW’s Delaware chapter, had slammed Biden for not addressing women’s issues in his reelection campaign, and claimed he wouldn’t vote for either him or his challenger. Criticism such as this led Biden to eventually lash out against “idiotic groups out there” like the “QSY Group to Save All the Women in the World.”

Throughout the 1990s, Biden was often on the other side from NOW on social legislation affecting families. Biden took a leading role in trying to pass the “welfare reform” NOW and Sanders opposed, voting for the ultimately successful legislation. Biden also voted for the balanced budget constitutional amendment, a key plank of the Contract with America NOW opposed, three years in a row. The measure failed to pass by only one or two votes each time.

Through the 2000s until today, Biden continued to back abortion restrictions that were disfavored by NOW, including the “partial-birth abortion” ban that eventually passed under George W. Bush, and the Hyde Amendment, which Biden abruptly reversed on last year.

What explains this apparent disconnect?

One is Biden’s leadership on the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which set up mandatory arrests and other measures to toughen treatment of domestic abusers, and was written in close collaboration with NOW. As Victoria Nourse, then Biden’s legal aide on the Judiciary Committee he was chairing, later recounted, she brought aboard Sally Goldfarb, staff attorney with the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, after Biden pointed at her in a meeting and said “we need to do something about women,” before walking off. VAWA and its reauthorization and funding have remained a priority for NOW years later, up until the present.

But while the law is often credited for a drop in annual domestic violence rates, the reality is more complicated. As Huffington Post reported last year, it’s not clear how much of that drop is connected to the law, and how much it follows the wider downtrend in crime rates since the 1990s. Meanwhile, its more punitive policies, like mandatory arrests, have been damaging for communities of color and even women, with police sometimes arresting female victims when unable to figure out who the abuser is.

Meanwhile, while Sanders votes the right way and has put significant abortion rights protections into his single-payer bill — a measure NOW has long backed — the bills he puts forward are much broader in scope, eschewing those focusing on specifically women’s issues to legislation focusing on groups like workers, veterans, consumers, and the elderly, all of whom include women.

Still, Sanders’s long history of endorsements from NOW’s chapters in Vermont, as well as Biden’s long history of conflict with the organization, stand in stark contrast to Van Pelt’s statement last week. Has NOW truly reevaluated Sanders and decided he “doesn’t have a record”? Or are we in the midst of a bout of campaign-related revisionist history?