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THOUSANDS CONVERGE TO PROTEST `FIERCE BACKLASH' AGAINST WOMEN

Women's rights supporters rallied near the Capitol Sunday to protest "violence against women" - a term they applied not only to rape and battering but also to political assaults on welfare spending, abortion and affirmative action.

"As women have been able to take some small measure of power, we're facing a fierce backlash," Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, told the crowd.Thousands of people spread across the National Mall for the rally, organized by NOW and endorsed by more than 700 groups, including abortion-rights supporters, labor unions, civil rights groups, gay and lesbian organizations, environmentalists, socialists, victims' rights advocates and welfare recipients.

Ireland estimated the crowd at 250,000.

Coming at the end of the first 100 days of the new GOP-led Congress, the "Rally for Women's Lives" focused heavily on the conservative agenda of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.

Speakers voiced fears that Congress would curtail abortion rights, cut spending on welfare programs for women and children, dismantle affirmative action programs for women and minorities, and cut funding to prevent domestic violence and aid its victims.

"Be it personal terror or political terror, it has just one purpose - control," said Eleanor Smeal, president of The Feminist Majority. "We are the majority. Our rights will only be taken away if we allow the terrorists to reign."