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George W. Bush and the War on Women
Turning Back the Clock on Women's Progress
By Barbara Finlay
Zed Books LtdCopyright © 2006 Barbara Finlay
All rights reserved.
GEORGE W. BUSH'S RADICAL AMERICAN REVOLUTION
Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
On 12 December 2000, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down one of the most momentous decisions in its history: by a narrowly split 5 : 4 decision, the Court halted the vote count in the state of Florida in the November 2000 presidential election, thereby handing the presidency to the Republican candidate, George W. Bush. The decision was widely condemned and highly criticized, most notably by the dissenting members of the court: Stevens, Souter, Ginsberg, and Breyer.
Nevertheless, even though Bush lost the popular vote and later studies found that Al Gore would have won if the full Florida count had gone ahead (as it should have by law), and in spite of major irregularities in the vote, George Walker Bush became the 43rd president of the United States. The country had been traumatized by the emotion-wrenching divisions raised in the election campaigns and the post-election events. In the end, political circumstances (the president's brother was governor of Florida; the state's attorney general, who certified the vote, had been chair of the Bush campaign in the state; and the Supreme Court justices who voted to stop the count were all Republican appointees) determined the outcome. And yet, as of January 2001, except for the strongest activists, much of the public seemed relieved that at last the election conflict was over and the presidential election had reached closure. Most reporters and commentators believed that Bush would govern 'from the center,' in deference to his narrowest of margins and based on his campaign promises of moderation, bipartisanship, and 'compassionate conservatism.'
In fact, Bush's election led to the most right-wing government in the country's recent history, contrary to his rhetoric. His policies have favored wealthy elites while undermining supports and protections for the most vulnerable members of society; he has set back environmental protections and ignored international treaties; he has started wars on false premises, giving out billion-dollar contracts to corporations with ties to his family, his administration, or the Republican party; and he has done all these things and much more while maintaining a rhetoric that misleads much of the public as to his real actions and policies. Given Bush's relatively moderate campaign rhetoric and the circumstances of his ascendance to office, he surprised many by his hard-right turn once safely in office. It soon became clear that Bush II was not a New England conservative in the mould of his father. Indeed Bush brought with him a strident hostility to settled policies, a cavalier disregard for fiscal responsibility, and an ideological inflexibility that would shock many old-line conservatives.
Observers were struck almost immediately by the assertiveness of the Bush II administration. After a few gracious comments about the need to recognize the implications of the closeness of the election, the Bush administration put forth an [agenda that aggressively sought to change decades of domestic and foreign policies]. Tax cuts, Social Security reform, energy policy, and defence were all areas in which the administration set out to make major changes. ... This was, in short, not going to be the administration of an 'old fashioned conservative' ..., but a more radical administration that rattled some settled cages and made some major changes. (Campbell and Rockman 2004: 64)
The Bush record on the environment, energy policy, the military and foreign affairs, health care, and the economy; and his management style of delegation, secrecy, intolerance of dissent, dishonesty, and cronyism have been widely criticized and analysed by an ever-growing list of books, editorials, and articles. His popularity and support might have receded quickly had it not been for the '9/11' attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a circumstance that the Bush–Cheney White House deftly exploited to promote their radical foreign and domestic policies at a time when many Americans were in shock and looking for 'strong leadership' to provide them security. In place of real security, however, it is now widely recognized that Bush brought greater insecurity to the nation and the world, squandering world sympathy and plunging the nation into unnecessary and unwise military ventures, extremes of deficit spending, violations of civil and human rights, and regressive budgetary and tax policies that increased economic inequality while enriching the few at the top. One can readily find a long list of anti-Bush book titles, editorials, opinion columns, and reports from a wide variety of sources. Unfortunately, the mainstream media generally went along with the Bush jingoism for the first years following the 9/11 attacks, failing to analyse his actions critically and ignoring contradictory evidence in a seeming loss of direction and purpose. It took the disgrace of the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina and the mounting casualties and chaos in Iraq to finally awaken some of the media commentators, but by then the second Bush term was well under way. It is ironic that only a few months after Bush won the election of 2004, his popularity rating had plunged to the lowest levels of any president at that point in his presidency (around 38 per cent approval overall), with the sole exception of Richard Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal.
Yet, in spite of the many voices of criticism raised against the misjudgments, cronyism, and failings of the Bush administration, there has been much less consideration of his actions and policies with respect to women, people of color, and the poor. This may be partly because political parties in recent years have focused on the 'center' and middle-class issues, aiming as well to appeal to 'angry white men,' who left the Democratic Party for the Republicans in a backlash against feminist and civil rights gains in the 1970 s. It also reflects a seeming 'blindness' to issues of continuing gender and racial oppression and discrimination, the majority of middle-class Americans and opinion leaders apparently believing that such problems were a thing of the past. By the 1990 s, it was no longer common to hear the word 'feminist' with a positive connotation, and indeed it tended to disappear from the lexicon of most journalists except in negative caricature. The backlash, as described so cogently by Susan Faludi (1991), had been successful. At the same time, and especially during the Bush years, women's voices were heard less and less, as they were almost never considered as relevant 'experts' to discuss such issues as war, foreign policy, or the 'tough' issues facing the country. In spite of this public silence, as I hope to demonstrate in this book, the policies and actions of the Bush regime have been injurious in many ways to women's interests. The need for sound critical and feminist analyses of the Bush years is more important now than ever, in order to raise awareness and provide evidence to support efforts to reverse the trends set in motion by the administration.
In fairness, there have been some valuable analyses of Bush policies with respect to women, but most of these have not received the attention they deserve. The most well-known and widely publicized criticisms have focused on Bush's anti-abortion policies and their implications. On the other hand, few in-depth discussions have appeared of Bush's impact on women's status and their rights in a broader sense, with the important exception of the work of a few research organizations whose work is accessible online. In fact, because of the lack of media discussion of these issues, Bush's campaign slogan 'W stands for Women,' his claim that his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were fought in part to liberate women, and his appointment of a number of highly visible women to Cabinet and other policy positions seem effectively to have undercut most attention to these issues. In contrast to the general impression, I will argue that George W. Bush and his administration have clearly set back the clock on women's progress both in the United States and abroad, in ways not often recognized by political observers. Just as poor people and minorities have been somewhat 'off the radar screen' in the past few years, women's issues have similarly been ignored or largely dismissed as being unimportant or insignificant by mainstream opinion leaders.
PRESIDENTIAL POWERS AND WOMEN'S RIGHTS
While women's legal rights in the United States are theoretically protected by a number of key laws passed in the 1960s and 1970s, there has been variation in how these laws have been interpreted and enforced over the subsequent decades. Such laws can be defined narrowly or broadly, enforced vigorously or half-heartedly, taken seriously or largely ignored, depending in large part on the occupant of the presidency. Thus, while Nixon, Ford, and Carter were more or less supportive of women's equity laws, the Reagan and George H.W. Bush years saw attempts to redefine, weaken, or push back on some of the rights gained by women in the previous decades. Under these administrations, abortion access was restricted, family-planning funds were reduced, a 'gag rule' was issued prohibiting the discussion of abortion by clinic personnel, affirmative-action enforcement and definitions were weakened, and anti-discrimination laws were not enforced as vigorously as had been the case in the 1970s (Tobias 1997: 111–33). These trends were reversed again during the Clinton presidency. Thus, presidents have the power to influence women's status and resources even where no change has occurred in their legal standing, by the use of the 'bully pulpit,' by executive order, by budgetary measures, and by commitment to enforcement actions. George W. Bush has used all of these means to work against many of the gains women had made over the past three decades, along with pushing back on civil rights advances in general.
Because women in recent years have tended to favor Democratic candidates for their more liberal social policies, Bush and his handlers went out of their way in the two presidential campaigns to counter the negative Republican image among women. His 'compassionate conservative' slogan attempted to project a more centrist and 'soft' image of his harsh social policies, and his campaign recruited a number of conservative women to work for him, including his mother, his wife Laura, and Dick Cheney's wife Lynne. Bush's appointment of highly visible women was used as 'evidence' of his support for women's needs; his campaign rhetoric focused on how his economic policies would help American women and how his foreign wars had 'liberated' Afghan and Iraqi women. His claims to have supported the global human rights of women were largely left unchallenged by Democrats and the mainstream media.
In reality, though, Bush has never made women's issues a priority in any public sense, preferring to work behind the scenes to undermine many of the gains of recent decades so as to avoid controversy. If one looks for pronouncements by the current President Bush or his representatives about women's issues, they are few and far between except during election campaigns. Certainly there are no calls for attacking gender-based wage inequality or opposing discrimination, problems this White House denies even exist. The White House website that touts its major programs and priorities has no link to women, women's rights or women's concerns. Instead, if one executes a search on that website for 'women' or 'women's issues,' almost all the hits have to do with First Lady Laura Bush and her speeches about women's rights in Afghanistan or Iraq, or her speeches in support of breast cancer awareness. There is no recognition that women's issues might be important for the actual office-holders or the president; nor is there any recognition of women's equity issues, for example. The fact that women's issues are listed within the sphere of concerns of Mrs Bush — unelected, without power, holding only a symbolic position — indicates their lack of importance to the real powers within the Bush administration, in spite of his pronouncements about 'respect for women' in foreign policy. One searches in vain for some indication that George Bush or his administration might be aware of American women's domestic issues, which range from poverty to discrimination in the workplace to family violence and many other concerns. Indeed, most of Bush's efforts have been in the opposite direction: to deny gender discrimination, to weaken enforcement of women's protections, to reduce the resources that government provides to help women.
Bush's approach to racial and ethnic concerns is similar. Even though the problems of women in the United States are multiplied for most women of color, their needs are disregarded by this White House. Although Bush had sought to improve the Republican appeal among minorities, his actual race-conscious actions were almost all purely symbolic, not substantive. While he did appoint an ethnically diverse group of men and women to his Cabinet, for example, the opinions and attitudes of the women and minority appointees were far different from those of the great majority of the groups they came from. In numerous speeches and pronouncements, Bush gives frequent nods to African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, and other ethnic minorities, but when one looks for serious policy initiatives about racial issues, they simply are not to be found. Instead, we find a number of symbolic measures, such as proclamations of 'Black History Month,' 'Women's History Month,' 'Black Music Month,' 'Breast Cancer Awareness Month,' and so forth.
CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENTS AND REPUBLICAN POLITICS
The Bush administration is much more conservative on many issues than even traditional Republican administrations, including that of his father. Ideological conservatives have been able to take over the party and bring people like Bush into power through the cobbling together of a loose and tenuous coalition of two key constituencies. The first are the traditional economic conservatives, those who generally represent the wealthier portion of the population and business interests, although many are moderate on issues of personal liberties such as reproductive rights. These are the more traditional Republicans who favor lower taxes, free-trade policies, and little regulation of business practice. They tend to be anti-union and oppose most equity initiatives as interference in business (e.g. they tend to oppose such worker or consumer protections as minimum wage laws, mandatory health insurance for workers, strict labor practice standards, environmental regulations, and affirmative-action requirements that might increase business costs). They also tend to be stingy on social welfare programs and favor the privatization of public functions. In most ways, George W. Bush's economic policies please this group, especially his tax cuts that favor the wealthy and his pro-business policies. Although his fiscal irresponsibility (runaway deficit spending) bothers this group, the benefits they gain from his other policies have kept them in his camp. Bush's personal politics are probably closer to this group than to the second key constituency, the religious conservatives.
Religious conservatives are a much more recent addition to the Republican family of supporters. Consisting mostly of fundamentalist Protestant Christians, but also including many conservative Catholics, this group promotes a fairly radical and antifeminist social agenda. Presenting themselves as supporters of 'family values,' 'traditional values,' and 'morality,' these groups oppose abortion, sex outside of (heterosexual) marriage, gay rights, and the many cultural signs of rampant 'immorality' they see in American culture. They frequently even oppose all forms of 'artificial' contraception, and certainly they dislike informing young students about such things. Many of these conservatives believe that the separation of church and state has gone too far in the country, supported by a 'liberal' media and so-called 'activist' judges. The Christian right supports mandatory school prayer, government funding of religious schools and institutions, and the teaching of creationism in science classes (while questioning Darwinian evolution). Many of these groups even teach the appropriateness of wifely submission to husbands, the sinfulness of sex before marriage, and the dangers of feminism to family and society.
Excerpted from George W. Bush and the War on Women by Barbara Finlay. Copyright © 2006 Barbara Finlay. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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