DENVER - The timing of Hillary Clinton's closely watched prime-time speech last night, on the 88th anniversary of women's suffrage, brought into sharp relief the passion for women's issues her campaign engendered - and the possibility of a legacy that could reenergize or divide the feminist movement.
Clinton's presidential bid galvanized women as no other campaign in recent history has. While many younger women supported Barack Obama, among Clinton's most passionate supporters were older women who saw the former first lady as their best chance of having a woman in the White House in their lifetimes - and who saw the demise of her campaign as evidence of lingering sexism in America. In Denver this week, many of these women have been talking about the emergence of a new movement that would unite women across the generational divide to combat discrimination, unequal pay, and other concerns.
"This is beyond Hillary now," said Maerose Tengsico, a 55-year-old insurance claims adjustor and the head of the California chapter of 18 Million Voices Rise Hillary Rise, which organized a march through Denver yesterday. "This is about women in general. . . . I think there's going to be another movement coming, a different kind of movement of women for women. We've been silent for some time."
Several dozen of Clinton's strongest female supporters met three weeks ago in New York to organize The New Agenda, a nonpartisan group focused on women's issues and electing women candidates. Amy Siskind, a major Democratic donor and activist from New York who helped start it, said in a phone interview yesterday that she has received e-mails and calls of support from around the country.
"I think the grave mistreatment of Hillary during the primary has been an awakening for a lot of women who. . . didn't consider themselves to be feminists in the past," she said. "Millions of folks feel like the Democratic Party abandoned its loyal base of women in this election."
But it is not at all clear a new movement would benefit the organizations that have long been at the forefront, such as EMILY's List and NARAL. Now, they are calling for unity, saying that some of the most important women's issues, especially abortion rights, are at stake in November and that Clinton supporters have a duty to stand up for them.
Many Clinton loyalists, though, are angry with the leaders of the party and women's groups, saying they did too little to confront rampant sexism and allowed an unfair primary process. They are divided over whether to support Obama or Republican John McCain - a troubling turn for the Democratic Party and for the feminist establishment, whose credibility depends on keeping Clinton supporters in the fold.
Siskind said the new group believes in abortion rights but does not make it a platform issue. Democrats, she said, have abused the issue as "a way to control women's votes."
"We believe that once women in this country have power in government and the workplace and money, things like abortion will not even be on the table for discussion," she said.
In Denver yesterday, as women celebrated the historic day, divisions within the movement were apparent. At a 2,000-person gala sponsored by EMILY's List featuring some of the party's most powerful women - Michelle Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Clinton herself - there was no mention of the disaffected Clinton supporters' biggest immediate gripe - obtaining a full roll-call vote tonight for Clinton.
Ellen Malcolm the president of EMILY's List, sounded confident. "Make no mistake about it," she said. "Women are united."
But earlier, as the several hundred Clinton supporters marched through downtown Denver to celebrate the historic day and Clinton's 18 million votes during the primaries, the mood was more indignant, or even angry, than celebratory. Many of those who marched beat drums and wore T-shirts emblazoned with "Hillary 2016." Reports that Clinton would not be granted a full roll-call vote on the convention floor infuriated the marchers, who said they would not rest until Clinton was given a fair say.
Discontent with the feminist establishment was also widespread. Diane Schrack, 52, of Highlands, Colo., marched with a sign that read, "Why didn't the DNC speak out against sexism?" She said she contributed money to groups such as NARAL and Planned Parenthood, but said she would "think twice about that in the future."
"The women's movement needs to stand up and say, 'Sexism is wrong, we made a mistake because we allowed it to happen, and we will not do that again to women or any other group,' " she said.
Gloria Allred, the celebrity women's rights lawyer from Los Angeles and a Clinton delegate, told the crowd at the end of the march, "We will honor the voters who elected us." She then rattled off the names of women's rights leaders emblazoned on a scarf she wore around her neck: Harriet Tubman, Golda Meir, Abigail Adams, Susan B. Anthony.
Quoting Eleanor Roosevelt, she said, "Women are like tea bags; they never know how strong they are until they're in hot water."
But later, Allred fiercely insisted that women who supported Clinton must vote for Obama in November because, at the very least, of abortion rights. Obama supports abortion rights, while McCain favors overturning Roe v. Wade, the US Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide, and working to eventually end abortions. "We have to educate these women who are disappointed Hillary didn't win," Allred said. "We have to help them to understand what's at stake. We can't have McCain appointing two Supreme Court vacancies."
Not all the women in the crowd were buying this argument. Many were older women who remember an America where abortion rights were not guaranteed - but are also at an age when those rights may not be as relevant to their lives.
"I'm not pregnant," said Jeannie Stratton, 51, from Washington who said she plans to vote for McCain to protest how the Democratic Party treated Clinton.
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at email@example.com.