Stealth Misogyny


“Don’t watch what we say, watch what we do.” That Nixon-era maxim perfectly describes George W. Bush’s covert campaign against women’s rights. Call it stealth misogyny.

Consider the recent battle over Title IX. The 1972 law that mandates equity for women in educational programs—not just sports—has been a prime target of the anti-feminist right. Modifying Title IX is even mentioned in the Republican Party platform. Secretary of Education Rod Paige formed a commission to reassess the law, but it ended up badly split, and in the face of a high-profile protest Paige declared his full support for Title IX last week. That was the headline, but the real story is in the details.

It seems Paige is devising new guidelines that will allow “a reasonable variance” from the standard of true equity for women. This subtle shift could make a real difference in graduate school admissions, scholarships, and university hiring, not to mention on the playing field. But by committing himself to Title IX even as he moves to modify it, Paige gives the impression that he favors equality. Activists have learned to watch what this administration does.

Advocates for women agree that Bush is acting to reverse the modest gains made under Bill Clinton. But the White House is moving deftly. In the name of budget cutting, it is closing women’s offices in federal agencies, defunding programs that monitor discrimination, and appointing people who oppose affirmative action and welfare for single mothers to policy-making posts. “They’re not taking legislation to the Hill and putting it up on high profile,” says Martha Burk, who chairs the National Council of Women’s Organizations. “They’re doing it through regs, policy changes, executive orders. All of this is under the radar for most citizens.”

Politics dictates the president’s discretion. If only because of the gender gap (women were much more likely than men to favor Gore in 2000), Bush must appear to embrace women’s concerns. But there are fissures in the female vote, based on class and marital status. Playing to that rift, Bush has included women in his inner circle, raised the issue of sexism in Afghanistan, and declared education a priority. “His approach is to appeal to enough women on these issues so that it will offset his other work,” says Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “It’s an attack-and-cover strategy.”

When Bush talks about leaving no child behind, he doesn’t mention the impact on girls of eroding Title IX. When he proclaims Women’s Equality Day, he doesn’t admit trimming the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s sails. Nor does he discuss his reconsideration of the Family and Medical Leave Act or his refusal to cover the cost of contraceptives for federal workers. Media coverage of these issues pales before the hot-button story of abortion, but Bush’s assault on choice is just the most visible part of a broader rollback. He is laying the groundwork for changes that will affect every woman who holds a job or depends on the government—that is to say, most women in America.

From the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, now headed by a staunch opponent of affirmative action, to the Food and Drug Administration, which recently welcomed a doctor who advocates prayer as a treatment for PMS, stealth misogyny is making its mark.

Take David Hager, Christ’s messenger on PMS. As a physician, he refuses to discuss contraception with unwed female patients. Now he’s part of the Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee at the FDA. An outcry forced Bush to withdraw Hager’s nomination to head that panel, which, under Clinton, played a major role in legalizing RU-486, the drug that can terminate a pregnancy at the zygote stage. With the religious right pressing for repeal of that authorization, it remains to be seen who will chair this crucial committee.

Meanwhile at the Department of Health and Human Services, Wade Horn has been put in charge of family support. A firm believer in using welfare to encourage marriage, Horn has proposed denying benefits to cohabiting couples and withholding money from single mothers until all married couples have been served. At his confirmation hearing, Horn said he’d changed his mind about these ideas. But HHS has already proposed that states be allowed to use scarce welfare funds to promote marriage—and even to divert children’s health benefits to the care of the unborn.

In the fog of pending war, Bush has moved to dismantle federal bureaus that monitor discrimination against women. He defunded the women’s equity office at the Department of Education (though technically it still exists). He tried to shut down the Department of Labor’s network of regional women’s offices, though he backed off after a huge protest (the fate of these offices is still unclear). He closed the White House Office for Women’s Initiatives and Outreach, whose job was to coordinate the work of the women’s bureaus Clinton had placed in every federal agency. Under this arrangement, it was possible to assess the impact on women of virtually every federal reg.

Now that formidable task has fallen to Lezlee Westine, who runs the White House’s public liaison office. Westine’s job is not to advocate for women but to deal with all sorts of constituencies on the administration’s behalf. She gets high marks from feminists, but as one activist notes, “You can only do so much if you’re a lone warrior.” (Westine was unavailable for comment.)

“You’d think Saddam would keep Bush busy, but he’s attacking women left and right,” says Carolyn Maloney, the congress member from Manhattan’s East Side and one of the House’s most active feminists. This week, Maloney will issue a fact sheet about Bush’s global war on women’s rights. One notorious example is our failure to sign the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. America is one of only three nations in the world to disavow this compact, which Kofi Annan calls “a milestone” in the quest for “universal norms of gender equality.” But the Independent Women’s Forum calls this treaty “big sister,” and so far Bush has sided with them.

The administration has also objected to UN family-planning and AIDS-prevention programs that offer or merely mention condoms. According to Planned Parenthood, the U.S. even opposed efforts to provide special rehabilitation for female victims of war crimes, because the measure might be construed as offering information about abortion to girls who have been raped. Then there’s Bush’s expansion of the global gag rule—even at home. A bill passed by the Republican House would allow health care companies to prevent their doctors from discussing abortion. Here is this decade’s version of silence = death.

The consensus among activists is that the women’s rights portfolio has been given to the vice president and his wife, Lynne Cheney. She is a board member of the Independent Women’s Forum, whose policy papers deny the existence of a gender pay gap and demand the dismantling of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Bush is dedicated to this agenda. But his administration still fears alienating soccer moms. If feminists can convince these middle-class voters that Bush’s policies hurt them as well as the poor, he will pay for his stealth misogyny. A good place to start the fightback is where politics begins and ends in America: the pocketbook.

Next week: the Myth of Progress

Research assistance: F. Timothy Martin