While celebrating the inclusion of CNN’s Candy Crowley as the second woman to ever moderate a presidential debate — and the first in 20 years — some women’s groups are concerned that she’s been given a “backseat role” as a “voiceless moderator” compared to her male counterparts.
The decision by the Commission on Presidential Debates to include a female moderator in 2012 followed a 160,000-signature petition effort by three teenage girls from Montclair, New Jersey.
Crowley has said she intends to ask follow-up questions during the town hall-format debate in Hempstead, New York on Tuesday night.
“Once the table is kind of set by the town-hall questioner,” Crowley has said, according to TIME’s Mark Halperin, “there is then time for me to say, ‘Hey, wait a second, what about X, Y, Z?’”
But by late Sunday night, the campaigns of both presidential candidates and the debate commission shot back, insisting that Crowley would be expected to remain mostly silent as the candidates fielded queries from the audience of undecided voters.
At the center of the controversy is a “memorandum of understanding” — agreed to by the commission and both campaigns — regarding Crowley’s severely limited role.
“The moderator will not ask follow-up questions or comment on either the questions asked by the audience or the answers of the candidates during the debate or otherwise intervene in the debate except to acknowledge the questioners from the audience or enforce the time limits, and invite candidate comments during the two-minute response period,” reads the memo.
The debate commission’s decision to give Crowley the only presidential debate where the moderator is expected to keep her mouth shut is rubbing some women’s groups the wrong way.
Amy Siskind, of The New Agenda, told The Daily Caller that she believes there is an effort to silence the one female moderator this year, and by extension, discussion of women’s issues.
“As the voting bloc which has determined every modern day election, it’s important that the women of this country have a voice,” Siskind told TheDC. “The Debate Commission has finally included women, but in back seat roles — moderator of the vice presidential debate, again, and a relatively voiceless moderator.”
“We demand that the Debate Commission not allow the Obama and Romney campaigns to silence Ms. Crowley,” she said.
The liberal National Organization for Women blasted out an email alert Monday night urging its supporters to sign onto a letter telling Crowley “you’ve got her back!”
“I denounce efforts to reduce you to playing nothing more than microphone holder for the audience,” the letter addressed to Crowley reads.
The request for signatures comes from NOW’s president, Terry O’Neill, who declares in the email that “the rigid format threatens to keep [Crowley] from asking follow-up questions during the debate.”
“This is outrageous!” O’Neill writes.
Carole Simpson — the first female presidential debate moderator in 1992 — told MSNBC Monday that she believes sexism played a role in giving Crowley the least involved debate for a moderator.
“I think it might have something to do with the fact that the Commission on Presidential Debates is made up mostly of men,” Simpson said. “I think of the 17 members, only two are women.”
“I was very upset that women were reduced to the vice presidential debate and to the town-hall format, which does not give a woman a chance to ask the questions,” said Simpson.
Penny Nance of the conservative group Concerned Women for America told TheDC that she expects Crowley’s reputation as a “tough journalist” to show through, regardless of the restrictive format.
“Candy Crowley is known for conducting thorough interviews; this has nothing to do with the fact that she’s a woman, it’s because she’s a tough journalist,” Nance said. “We expect to see that in the presidential debate, even in this town-hall format.”
“I’m glad to see a woman as part of the process and look forward to the day a female is answering the questions,” said Nance.
For her part, Crowley appeared on CNN Monday afternoon and declared that she would flout the debate commission’s rules anyway.
“As was the case in the Charlie Gibson town hall meeting and the Tom Brokaw town hall meeting in presidential campaigns past, there was a time after that for follow-up and for furthering the discussion,” said Crowley.
The Commission on Presidential Debates did not respond to a request for comment for this report.