“W. Is for Women,” said the Bush campaign buttons in 2000. True, he didn’t seem to have much to offer women, but the affable, moderate-seeming candidate didn’t seem hostile either. He spent no time railing against feminists, and though known to oppose abortion, he didn’t appear interested in doing anything about it. In fact, he got through the entire campaign without bringing up abortion.
Even after four years in office, George W. Bush’s record on women doesn’t leap out at you. It’s composed almost entirely of little things, small enough to fly well under the media’s radar screen, so few of us have any sense of their cumulative impact. But when you step back, the pattern emerges, and it is large, ugly, and unmistakable. Behind a smoke screen of high-profile female appointees and soothing slogans, George W. Bush is waging war on women.
One reason you may not have noticed is that W’s record on women is getting harder and harder to find. Who knows whether women are doing better or worse? You can’t find the information anymore—the Bush administration has simply stopped counting, stopped keeping track, dropped the records. When you go to the places where the government used to keep the information you find the damnedest things—fake sociology, phony science, erroneous health information, and pathetically bad economics.
Try a different route to the record—who has Bush placed in important posts involving women’s health, education, and employment? Well, darling, according to Bush appointees, when you get PMS, pray. If your husband beats the crap out of you, just agree that wives should be submissive to their husbands, and besides, as everybody in the Bush administration knows, women beat up men just as often as men beat up women. Oh, and if you get breast cancer, it’s your fault because you had an abortion—a conclusion that particularly startled people who study the disease.
Okay, but it can’t be all bad. I mean, look at the man—he’s surrounded by women. Elaine Chao, secretary of labor; Ann Veneman, secretary of agriculture; Gale Norton, secretary of interior, why, that’s almost as many women as Bill Clinton appointed to the Cabinet. Except the women in Bush’s administration have two important traits in common: They’ve sworn their allegiance to the corporate world, and they have connections to right-wing foundations that espouse antifemale policies.
Well, okay, but his momma and his wife are in favor of abortion rights, give him a break. Unfortunate pattern there. Laura Bush, it seems, is used to cast a softer light on her husband, who then proceeds to reverse whatever she’s just promised. Right before the Bush inauguration, many women were greatly reassured when Laura said of Roe v. Wade on the Today show, “No, I don’t think it should be overturned.” Three days later, her husband reimposed the “global gag rule” on groups abroad that receive U.S. funding for family planning. They may no longer so much as mention abortion, even when it is medically necessary.
In April 2001, Laura, the librarian, kicked off the Campaign for America’s Libraries. A week later, her husband cut funding for the Library Services and Technology Act, the Reading Is Fundamental program, and the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. Oops.
Laura Bush was most famously used to put a female-friendly face on policy before the war in Afghanistan, when she substituted for her husband in his weekly radio address and spoke eloquently about the Taliban’s oppression of women. Unfortunately, the much-heralded Afghan Women and Children’s Relief Act, signed by Bush, had no dollar figures attached to it, and only a tiny amount of money was ever committed. Meanwhile, Afghan women’s groups consistently report that women are almost as badly off under the renewed rule of the warlords as they were before. At least the Taliban did not commit rape as a matter of policy.
Maybe it’s better Laura not stand up for anything.
Let’s look at a few lesser-known Bushies. In August 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft named two women from the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) to the National Advisory Committee on Violence Against Women. An imaginative move. IWF twice opposed the Violence Against Women Act and continues to lobby against its enforcement. An antifeminist group funded by the usual consortium of right-wing foundations—Olin, Bradley, Scaife, Coors—IWF also vehemently opposes affirmative action; Title IX, which provides for equal educational opportunity; Take Our Daughters to Work Day; and women in combat. Bush appointed Nancy Pfotenhauer, president and CEO of IWF, to be a delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Writing in the Chicago Tribune, Chris Black notes that IWF “debunk[s] ‘feminist myths’ and say[s] reports of rape, wage discrimination, domestic violence, and gender bias in schools are either flat-out wrong or wildly exaggerated.” With alert watchdogs like these looking out for women’s interests, how can we go wrong?
Anyone who watched George W. and Karl Rove while the former was governor of Texas will recognize a familiar pattern. Like much of Bush’s social policy—from faith-based social services to railing against gay marriage—women’s issues are one of the bones they’ve decided they can throw to the Christian right. (The “serious stuff,” such as taxes, the environment, and economic and labor policy are a different matter: Those are reserved for nonreligious ideologues.)
On the health front, take the appointment of Dr. W. David Hager to the Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee. Hager coauthored a book that prescribes scripture and prayers as a cure for headaches and PMS. (For more on Hager, see “Christian Science?” page 20.) He opposes prescribing contraceptives to unmarried women, and voted to prohibit emergency contraception being sold over the counter, as it would be used by “individuals who did not want to take responsibility for their actions and wanted a medication to relieve those consequences.” Right. Let the irresponsible sluts suffer.
Another example of morality trumping science came when a fact sheet on condoms suddenly disappeared from the Centers for Disease Control’s website. The fact sheet, based on a large pool of scientific study, encouraged condom use since they are 98 to 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. “The primary reason condoms sometimes fail is incorrect or inconsistent use, not failure of the condom itself,” said the fact sheet. Eighteen months later, a new fact sheet appeared, stating that abstinence is the surest way to avoid STDs and that evidence on condoms is inconclusive. The CDC also removed a summary of studies showing no increase in sexual activity among teenagers taught about condoms. James Wagoner, head of Advocates for Youth, which works for comprehensive sex education, has called it “a deeply unsettling trend where public-health science is being supplanted by politics and ideology.” Since Wagoner’s group began criticizing Bush’s policies, it has been audited three times. Advocates for Youth also had its CDC funding for AIDS prevention yanked because “young people [in the project’s video] used the correct terminology for male and female anatomy.” “It’s absurd,” said Wagoner. “What is the president going to do? Issue an executive order that every man, woman, and child should refer to the penis as a dingaling?”
In Texas, thanks to W’s stint as governor, we are well ahead in the abstinence-only sex education field. The happy result is that Texas is now tied with Mississippi for having the highest teen birthrate in the nation. Four percent of all 15- to 17-year-old girls in Texas give birth. We’re so proud.
On the economic front, the case of disappearing information recurs. The Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor used to post 25 fact sheets on topics including “Women’s Earnings as Percent of Men’s,” “Domestic Violence: A Workplace Issue,” “Women in Management,” “Care Around the Clock: Developing Child Care Resources,” and so on. These have been replaced by peppy new Cosmo-like titles such as “Hot Jobs for the 21st Century” and “20 Leading Occupations for Women.” In a recent report, the National Council for Research on Women further notes that a required study by the Justice Department on discrimination in the insurance industry against domestic violence victims has vanished. A congressionally mandated report on how employers should handle such abused women has also been held up by the Justice Department for more than two years. Without explanation, the Department of Education archived its guidelines on sexual harassment in the schools.
The Bush administration is notorious for secrecy, but this is not some exercise in executive privilege. This information is being disappeared. As was the President’s Interagency Council on Women and the White House Office of Women’s Initiatives and Outreach. No more. The Pentagon attempted to disband its Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. Congresswoman Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), herself a veteran, managed to save it. However, the committee’s work was redirected from issues of employment equity and job access to the effects of deployment on family life.
In April, the National Women’s Law Center released a report called “Slip-Sliding Away,” on the erosion of women’s rights. Among its findings: The Department of Labor—under the steady hand of Elaine Chao—has refused to use tools at its disposal to identify violations of equal pay laws. The Department of Labor has also repealed regulations that allowed paid family leave to be provided through state unemployment compensation funds, proposed new regulations that deprive millions of women of the right to overtime pay, and even provided tips to employers on how to avoid paying overtime when the law still requires it.
Should some poor fool nonetheless seek pay equity—say an employee of Wal-Mart or Merrill Lynch or Morgan Stanley—corporations need not worry: The Justice Department has weakened the enforcement of laws against job discrimination and abandoned pending sex discrimination cases.
The cumulative effects of broader Bush policies on women are also stunning. Since women are disproportionately poorer than men, the constant erosion of programs that help poor people hurt women more than men. Child-care, early-learning, and after-school programs are particularly critical for women trying to get off welfare. But at least 300,000 children will be knocked off child-care assistance under the administration’s new budget, which also freezes funding for Head Start and cuts funding for after- school programs. Meanwhile, the Bushies want to impose new work requirements on families who receive welfare.
Add in cuts to housing subsidies, to prenatal and early childhood nutrition programs, to college grants, to career education, to domestic violence programs, and lower federal grants that result in cuts to public schools, and it all adds up to a mountain of new trouble for low- and moderate-income women and their families.
According to Frank Luntz, Republican pollster and spinmeister, these younger working women with small children are critical swing voters. By dint of focus groups and shrewd professional questioning, Luntz has determined what these women need most—more time in their lives. He seemed to regard this finding as a considerable coup.
When asked on PBS’s Now how the Republicans propose to court this demographic, Luntz conjured up an imaginary focus group. “You actually ask the question,” said Luntz. “‘So, I want to talk to the ladies in the room’—the women in the room is how I would put it—‘I want you to tell me what really matters to you. What’s your greatest challenge? Because I think I know what it is. Ladies here, I’d say that your lack of free time is one of the greatest challenges.’ And they’ll all sit there and they’ll raise their hands and they’ll nod yes. At that moment you have bonded with those women. At that moment, when they hear that you understand the challenges that face them, they are ready to listen to your solution.”
That’s the Bush solution for overstressed working moms. No overtime pay, no child care, no Head Start, no after-school programs, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But hey, at least he’s willing to bond.