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National NOW Times >> Spring, 2001 >> Article

Bush Cabinet: Threats to a Feminist Agenda

by Leigha Creehan

"Stop Ashcroft!" This became the anthem of progressive groups after the nomination of John Ashcroft as Attorney General on Dec. 22, 2000. For many people, the possibility of John Ashcroft becoming the nation's chief law enforcement officer was more than enough reason to take to the streets. With the confirmation hearings came pickets and petitions and lots of news coverage. The result, although disappointing, carried the message that activists will not sit silently and watch as an extremist takes control of the Justice Department. While Ashcroft was receiving all of the attention, other prominent cabinet members were nominated and confirmed. Some observers have praised Bush for his seemingly diverse appointments, but what can feminists expect from the women and men who are poised to lead in this new administration?

Beginning with, arguably, the most influential and certainly the most high profile, Secretary of State Colin Powell, one can examine what this cabinet means for feminist issues in the next four years. Sec. Powell is known for his narrow views on how and why the U.S. should intervene in other countries. He has said that "when the United States goes to war...it should be for a clear purpose and the outcome should be overwhelming victory."

Troubling to feminists is his opposition to humanitarian and peacekeeping missions, such as intervention in the Balkans and the food drops to Bosnian Muslims. Sec. Powell does break with party leadership in the areas of affirmative action and abortion rights. He is a supporter of both.

The Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), head of a department that has a huge impact on the lives of women in this country, is former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson. This appointment is particularly threatening to women because of Thompson's well-known record on reproductive rights issues and welfare.

Thompson makes no secret about his fierce anti-abortion rights position, and now he has the opportunity to make real changes in the availability and ease with which women can receive reproductive health care. Another of the threats to women’s health and survival is the feminization of poverty. Thompson's Wisconsin welfare program, which he touted as a success in his first-day speech at HHS, has, according to numerous studies, meant that families in Wisconsin are significantly poorer.

Bush has repeatedly been praised for including five women in his cabinet. One of these women, Elaine Chao, was the second nominee for Secretary of Labor after the first choice, Linda Chavez, was forced to withdraw amid controversy. After the uproar surrounding Chavez, the introduction of Chao was a relief of sorts. She is an unapologetic conservative who has earned the respect of several prominent liberals.

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