BERKELEY, Calif. — Toni Morrison famously dubbed President Clinton America's "first black president." With that barrier broken, the comments of a prominent feminist are provoking debate about who may lay a similar claim to the title of America's first woman president.
The candidate being touted as a torchbearer for women is not Senator Clinton, but one of her former colleagues, John Edwards. At a rally near the University of California, Berkeley campus this week, a veteran of the abortion-rights movement, Kate Michelman, asked and answered the question she gets most frequently about her decision to back the male former senator from North Carolina.
"Why John Edwards, given the historic nature of our extraordinary campaign for the presidency this year with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and all the others?" Ms. Michelman asked as she warmed up the crowd for Mr. Edwards. "I've gotten to know a lot of political leaders over the years that I've been an advocate for women's rights. I know the difference between those who advocate as a political position and those who understand the reality of women's lives."
Compared to Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Edwards is short an ‘X' chromosome, but listening to Ms. Michelman, that is easy to forget. "As a lawyer, as a senator, as a husband, as a father of two daughters, he understands the reality of women's lives. He understands the centrality of women's lives and experience to the health and well-being of society as a whole. … He understands that on an extremely personal level," she said.
Her comments drew some quizzical looks, though if she had extended her argument to suggest that Mr. Edwards understood the plight of African Americans as well or better than Mr. Obama, some audible dissension would surely have arisen.
After the rally, another journalist and I sought out Ms. Michelman, who spent 20 years at the helm of one of the nation's leading abortion-rights groups, NARAL Pro-Choice America, before stepping down in 2004. Asked how Mr. Edwards could have a better understanding of women's concerns than Mrs. Clinton, Ms. Michelman denied trying to convey such a message. "I didn't say ‘better,'" she said. However, she did acknowledge recently to an online magazine, Salon.com, that touting Mr. Edwards "necessarily" meant criticizing his opponents.
Pressed about how Mr. Edwards could have a feel for women's problems that is even comparable to that of someone like Mrs. Clinton, Ms. Michelman said her concerns goes beyond identifying the issues. "He doesn't just understand. You have to begin with understanding. It's an understanding but it is a commitment…He understands in a way that is tied to all of his beliefs about lifting everyone up."
Mrs. Clinton's campaign declined to respond, but her allies dismissed as hyperbole much of the rhetoric from Ms. Michelman, who has signed on as a senior adviser to Mr. Edwards's presidential bid.
"I would argue that Hillary has a really good sensibility, as well, of what it's like to be a woman," the head of NARAL's New York chapter, Kelli Conlin, said with a chuckle.
The leader of a group that endorses and funds female candidates supportive of abortion rights, Ellen Malcolm of Emily's List, said Mr. Edwards's sensitivity can only go so far. "Every once in a while we get in a primary race where a man says he's the best woman in the race. I've never seen a candidate win with that argument yet. It's just ridiculous," she said.
"Hillary Clinton has spent her entire adult life working on behalf of women and children. She has a unique experience as a woman who has faced the obstacles in the way of women," Ms. Malcolm, whose organization has endorsed Mrs. Clinton, said. "No white man can understand the experience a woman has to go through to move ahead."
Ms. Michelman's decision, after a career in the women's movement, not to back the strongest female presidential candidate in history, has prompted speculation and grumbling in some quarters. Some suspect that Ms. Michelman is still fuming over a 2005 speech in which Mrs. Clinton called abortion "a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women" and said abortion should be reduced or eliminated by better promoting birth control measures. "I think Kate will never forgive Hillary for suggesting abortion should be rare," one New Yorker close to Mrs. Clinton said.
For what it's worth, both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Edwards have 100% ratings from NARAL on their abortion-related votes.
When Ms. Michelman is asked what quibbles she has with Mrs. Clinton, the veteran activist replies by citing a preference for Mr. Edwards across a wide array of issues. They include health care and a so-called living wage, two areas where the 2004 vice presidential nominee has arguably staked out more aggressive positions than the former first lady. Ms. Michelman also mentions her own stint on welfare, gesturing perhaps to the objections some liberals had to the welfare reform law President Clinton signed over a decade ago.
Still, the longtime abortion rights champion acknowledges that some of her enthusiasm for Mr. Edwards springs from an intangible affinity she can't quite explain. "It is hard to describe. I am inspired by him," she said.