Get Back, Loretta

Bush's rollback of women's rights

Sunday's March for Women's Lives, which drew at least 750,000 people to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is a good time to look at George Bush's overall record on women's issues. It's nothing to crow about (unless you're Rush Limbaugh). The administration has been steadily rolling back federal policies that help women. Abortion is just the visible part of this backlash, because it's such a hot-button issue for Bush's right wing legions. But the rest of his agenda is flying far under the radar.

Now, the National Women's Law Center has released an extensive report on "the erosion of hard-won gains for women under Bush." It's called "Slip-Sliding Away," and it examines 10 major areas of concern, from the workplace to the child care center and from the classroom to the military barracks. In each place, Bush's policies make it harder for women to achieve equal rights.

For example, the Department of Labor has "refused to use tools at its disposal to identify violations of equal pay laws," according to the report. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice has "weakened enforcement of the laws against job discrimination and even abandoned pending sex discrimination cases." In schooling, the administration has proposed "reducing funding for, and even eliminating, programs that provide gender equity." The Department of Education has refused to investigate the pervasive exclusion of women from math and science programs. And despite an outcry over previous attempts to weaken Title IX protections for women in schools, the DOE is still pursuing that goal by failing to use its "scarce resources to enforce the law."

In addition, the administration has "archived" material on sexual harassment, making it unavailable to the public, notes the report. The president's budget proposes slashing funds for services to battered women and a national domestic-violence hotline. The Department of Defense has allowed the charter of a 55-year-old committee that promoted the recruitment of women in the military to lapse. Current policy prohibits a servicewoman from having an abortion at an overseas military hospital unless she has been raped or her life is in danger—and even then, she must pay for the procedure herself.

Other moves, such as closing the White House Office for Women's Initiatives and Outreach and padlocking key offices of the Labor Department's Women's Bureau, occurred some time ago. But the rollback has steadily advanced. By now, key advisory panels in social services include people hostile to women's interests. Several Bush nominees to the federal bench have distinguished themselves with sexist comments. One potential jurist declared that women must be "submissive" to their husbands; another opined that women might not have the right to litigate against verbal sexual harassment.

Then there are the broader policy decisions that affect women's lives, such as cutting child-care budgets, freezing funds for after-school programs, and imposing harsh new requirements on welfare recipients. Plans to transform Medicare and privatize Social Security affect women disproportionately because they are more likely than men to be poor. It remains to be seen how single mothers will fare under the president's initiative to encourage marriage.

The report acknowledges that the administration has taken some constructive actions, such as prosecuting people who smuggle women into the country for prostitution. But the pattern is one of "serious steps backward."

Will John Kerry take these findings and run with them? If his reaction to Sunday's march is any sign, don't count on it. He sent his daughter to D.C. and snuck off to Iowa (though he showed up at an earlier, less publicized, abortion rights rally). Many Democratic strategists think the party should downplay women's issues in order to chip away at Bush's hold on the dude vote. (Remember, only 22 percent of white males voted for Al Gore.) If the president is to be held to account, women will have to do it. It's a matter of liberty—and life.

 
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