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Women Fight to Save Affirmative Action and Sex Discrimination Law in California

Across the nation, women’s rights groups and civil rights groups are galvanizing support to defeat an initiative on the November ballot in California which would end state and locally sponsored affirmative action programs. At a press conference last week after the initiative supporters filed more than their required signatures, the Campaign to Save Women’s Rights and Civil Rights announced that the initiative would not only harm women and people of color in hiring, contracting, and college admissions but would also gut laws prohibiting sex discrimination.

Prema Mathai-Davis said, co-chair of the anti-initiative Campaign that consists of a coalition of 100 groups, said "Those who would steal our rights and confiscate our opportunities have made their move and we are here to tell them that this is as far as they’ll go." Mathai-Davis is national executive director of the YWCA of the U.S.A., one of the backers of the Campaign which also includes the Feminist Majority, the National Organization for Women, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, said that five other states -- Florida, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Illinois -- have similar initiatives as do the U.S Congress and 17 state legislatures. Organizers of the anti-initiative Campaign say their greatest challenge is educating the public on what the initiative, deceptively called the "California Civil Rights Initiative" will do. The words "affirmative action" appear nowhere in the text, and the media has given little coverage to the Clause C which says discrimination on the basis of sex is permissible if it is "reasonably necessary to the normal operation of public employment, public education, and public contracting."

Opponents of the initiative say many programs are at risk as a result of this language, including those that target girls for science classes and ones that select women for jobs like firefighters. To demonstrate the potential effect on girls’ sports opportunities, five local high school girls on the basketball team dribbled a ball at the news conference.

Since polls show college students largely in favor of affirmative action, opponents of the initiative are planning to mobilize student votes to defeat the CCRI. Smeal said that students from around the country are planning to spend the summer in California while others will work phones, canvass and distribute information on the negative effects of the initiative and the impact California could have on other states and the federal government. "We are up against a well-fueled, deceptive machinery, but what we’ve got is people power," Smeal said.

Media Resources: The Washington Post - March 3, 1996

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