W stands for women, Dubya does not

October 22, 2004

Before women go to vote in the US presidential elections, they should review the incumbent's record on equality, says Cynthia Enloe

As the US presidential campaign enters its final leg, questions are being asked about "the women's vote". Will the newly minted "security moms" - white, suburban, married, with kids - tilt towards the Republicans? Will unmarried women (of all ages, classes and races) give Kerry a margin of victory? Will Bush shrink the gender gap while holding on to his notable lead among white male voters?

For all the Bush campaign's courting of female voters - "W. stands for women" - and its assertions that military invasions are liberating Iraqi and Afghan women, when the agenda of the Bush Administration's conservative base has conflicted with the rights and needs of women, the latter have consistently lost out.

Yet this pattern of Bush decision-making has not been treated as a "story" by the mainstream US news media. Editors and producers have not deemed newsworthy this Administration's systematic reversing of practices and policies that have taken feminists an entire generation to implement.

Instead, we rely on women's policy researchers, feminist political columnists and an online women's news service (www. womensenews.org) to monitor the Administration's efforts to roll back federal schemes designed to improve women's lives. It is tough for an American woman to make an informed choice at the polls when the President's actions so directly affecting her life are being swept under the proverbial rug by the most powerful media conglomerates.

For instance, it has been considered unnewsworthy that Bush has curtailed the powers of the Department of Labor's Women's Bureau. In a recent report, "Missing", the National Council for Research on Women ( www.ncrw.org ) lists 25 Women's Bureau reports deleted from the bureau's website, including Earning Differences Between Women and Men and Black Women in the Labor Force . This Administration clearly has an aversion to disaggregating data by gender. Stop gender disaggregating data, and you make women - and sexism - invisible.

At the Department of Justice, John Ashcroft, Bush's Attorney-General, has been able to fly under the media radar as he has subverted the Violence against Women Act by not enforcing it and by appointing the Act's outspoken opponents - conservative women from the Independent Women's Forum set up to "combat radical feminism" - to his Advisory Committee on Violence against Women.

The pattern of undermining female-attentive federal agencies continued over at the Pentagon. There was little journalistic buzz when Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defence, tried to disband the Defence Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, an official bipartisan group mandated to investigate and advise the secretary on gender inequalities and sexual harassment. Only when challenged by a Republican woman in Congress, herself a veteran, did he back down a step. According to the feminist watchdog group Women's Research and Education Institute (www.wrei.org), which keeps track of sexism in the US military, the Defence Advisory Committee has been left toothless. A powerful military is distorting American international relations; a sexist military only intensifies that distortion.

Census Bureau civil servants bucked the tide against gender disaggregated data. What they provided wasn't a pretty picture. According to their August report, the wage gap between American men and women widened between 1998 and 2003. The Institute for Women's Policy Research's deeper look into the Census Bureau's report revealed that 2003 marked the first decline in women's real (adjusted for inflation) earnings since 1995 (www.iwpr.org).

Disaggregating economic data by both gender and race, a practice that the Bush Administration is loath to do, IWPR found: by 2004, all full-time employed American women were earning on average 68 cents for every dollar being earned by white men, yet African-American full-time employed women were earning only 63 cents, and Hispanic women were being paid a mere 53 cents. Not the stuff, apparently, of headlines.

More widely reported by the mainstream media has been the Bush Administration's vigorous support for bans on late-term abortions, misleadingly labelled "partial birth abortions". At the law's 2003 ceremonial signing, Bush surrounded himself with the Bill's Congressional sponsors - all white middle-aged men. The ceremonial photograph quickly made its way around the feminist internet circuit. Already federal judges in California, New York and Nebraska have rejected the constitutionality of the law because it makes no provision for pregnant women's health. Bush officials are certain to appeal those disappointing decisions up to the Supreme Court.

On today's ideologically divided Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor often casts the decisive swing vote. Given the ages and health statuses of the current nine "Supremes", Bush, if re-elected, would get the chance to appoint at least two new justices and could use candidates' stands on abortion as his principal criterion for selection. While most campaign coverage has paid scant attention to the Supreme Court, many women's rights groups, led by the National Association for Women (www. now.org), have spurred women to vote this November by raising the alarming prospect of a second-term Bush moving to overturn the historic precedent set by the Supreme Court's ruling in the Roe v Wade case, which established the right to abortion on demand.

Back under the radar, the Bush Administration matched its domestic anti-abortion moves with its foreign policies. It reimposed the Reagan-era "global gag rule", cutting off US aid to overseas groups mentioning abortion. Sexual abstinence is this Administration's preferred health advice to the world. While Bush's pledge of billions of US dollars for global Aids prevention did make headlines, his less reported "abstinence-only" policy directive for its expenditure has made that pledge ring hollow in the ears of many of the world's health workers.

At the 1994 United Nations Cairo conference on population, an international alliance of women's advocates persuaded governments to make women's health and empowerment - not mere fertility reduction - the core principle of future population policies. This paradigm shift should have been news. So too should be the Bush Administration's rejection of this shift. Organisers of the recent London symposium marking the tenth anniversary of the Cairo conference chose to make the gathering unofficial: they thought it too risky to hold an official intergovernmental conference at which the Bush Administration could seek to reverse the Cairo principle of women's empowerment.

During the past four years, not all of the US acts of commission and omission affecting women's lives have been occurring in Executive Branch.

Acts of omission seem to be particularly hard for the media to convert into news. Today, the US Government stands with Iran among the handful of governments refusing to ratify the UN Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The Senate remains a men's club, according to research by the Center for Women and Politics (www.cwap.org). Leaders of the Republican majority in the Senate, seeing themselves as guardians of US sovereignty, are opposed to ratifying the convention. In their patriarchal notion of sovereignty, these Republican senators are in perfect sync with the White House.

The same Bush-backed Republican Senate leadership has also refused to ratify the 1998 Treaty of Rome, the founding document for the International Criminal Court. Thanks to strenuous pressuring by an international alliance of feminist legal experts, the ICC treaty for the first time makes systematic wartime rape, enforced pregnancy and sexual slavery internationally prosecutable crimes. The US refusal to join the ICC jeopardises its effectiveness. If this Administration's refusal to join the ICC were treated as newsworthy, perhaps the Bush Administration's claim that it is liberating the world's women, invasion by invasion, would be greeted with more scepticism.

Precisely because the media acts as a filter between American women and their government, feminist researchers have been developing media monitoring groups. The White House Project (www.thewhitehouseproject. org) and Emily's List (www.emilyslist.org), both working to increase the number of women in elective office, track how many men and how few women are interviewed for news stories or appear on important Sunday morning talk shows.

Building on this work, the Center for New Words (www.centerfornewwords.org) will hold its second Women and the Media conference next March to make visible the implications for women of the masculinisation of US news and to build skills needed to reverse it. These organisations report that the media's marginalisation of women and women's issues has become more pronounced since 9/11. The War on Terror discourse has served to shrink understandings of what is "news", what is "security" and who is an "expert".

The toxic combination of the mainstream American media's militarisation and masculinisation has made the work of independent women's research organisations vital. It has been this same combination that has also made it possible for the Bush Administration to roll back federal policies designed to level the gender playing field without fear of being exposed on the evening news.

Cynthia Enloe is research professor of international development and women's studies at Clark University in Massachusetts. Her latest book, The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire , will be published in December by University of California Press.

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