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National NOW Times >> Winter 2003/2004 >> Article

What is the Real State of the Union for Women in the U.S.?

Editorial cartoon by Signe Wilkinson
Signe Wilkinson. ©2003, The Washington Post Writers Group. Reprinted with permission.
When George W. Bush delivers the annual State of the Union address in January, he'll talk about the economy, the "war on terrorism" and the ongoing U.S. occupation of Iraq. If he addresses women's issues at all—an unlikely scenario—he won't do more than pay them lip service.

Because Bush and his cronies are counting on us to not notice as they work to reverse the progress women have made over the past few decades, here is NOW's own "State of the Union" for women in the United States—the part that George W. doesn't want you to think about.

Bush Wants Control of Your Body

Our reproductive rights are in greater peril than they have been in three decades. Last fall, 272 members of the House of Representatives, 64 U.S. senators and one president supported the enactment of the so-called Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, the first ban on any abortion procedure since abortion became legal in 1973.

By enacting the ban, which doesn't even make an exception for cases where a woman’s health and future reproductive capacity are in danger, Bush confirms that his administration and Congress have both the power and the will to overturn Roe v. Wade, one step at a time. Right now, the Supreme Court narrowly supports a woman's right to make her own reproductive decisions, while making access difficult or impossible for many. And by the time the challenge to this new law reaches the Supreme Court, we could have one or two new justices who do not believe the Constitution protects a woman's right to abortion.

Limitations on access to reproductive health care and birth control have been increased by this administration. One of Bush's appointees to the FDA's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee, Dr. W. David Hager, opposes emergency contraception (the morning-after pill), opposes the use of birth control and condoms outside of marriage, and opposes mifepristone (RU-486).

The Bush administration continues its global gag rule, which prohibits any organization receiving population funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development from using any funds, even their own privately-raised funds, to counsel or refer their patients for an abortion. This has led to closed clinics, cuts in healthcare staff and dwindling medical supplies, leaving women, children and families without access to vital healthcare services.

Women's Economic Woes Rank Low on Bush Agenda

For all the progress women have made in the workplace over the years, true equality remains an unrealized goal. Women who work full-time are paid only 73 cents for every dollar paid to men, and women of color who work full-time are paid only 64 cents, African American women only 67 cents and Latinas only 55 cents for every dollar men earn overall. At Wal-Mart, the nation's largest private employer, the majority of workers are women, but women fill only one-third of its management positions. Additionally, Bush's Department of Labor has proposed changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act that have the potential for denying overtime pay to millions of hardworking women and men who count on these extra funds to make ends meet.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration continues in its effort to push low-income women to marry, diverting hundreds of millions of dollars each year toward Bush administration marriage initiatives and away from programs and services intended to help low-income people move out of poverty.

The Medicare prescription drug bill enacted in December 2003 overturned nearly 40 years of progress in extending affordable health care coverage to older people. And analysts predict that when the legislation takes effect in 2006, older women who are single, divorced, separated or widowed will be especially disadvantaged. These women have fewer savings and dramatically less income because of pension inequities, uncompensated years out of the work force caring for children or ill relatives, and systematic pay discrimination—and will therefore be less able to pay increased premiums.

Violence Against Women Continues

In 2003, a civilian commission investigating sexual assault charges at the U.S. Air Force Academy blasted top officials in September for ignoring persistent reports of recurrent and unpunished sexual assaults. The commission lambasted leaders at the highest levels of the U.S. Air Force, saying they had known about sexual misconduct problems at the Colorado academy for more than a decade, but failed to take action to stop misconduct or punish offenders. NOW's efforts helped to remove at least one member of the commission who had made offensive comments about women who are raped, adding in her place the only victim advocate to serve on the investigatory group.

In addition, immigrant women who are victims of violence may soon be in even greater danger thanks to the CLEAR Act before Congress.

Marriage Rights Are Opposed by Administration

The fight for the fundamental right to marry the partner of one's choice is gaining momentum, despite public statements by George W. Bush and indications that his administration will take action to prevent marriage rights. A June 26 ruling from the Supreme Court striking down antiquated sodomy laws and a Nov. 18 ruling from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court favoring marriage rights for same-sex couples were landmark victories for civil rights. However, a week after the Massachusetts court ruling, six members of Congress introduced a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would permanently exclude gays and lesbians from enjoying the 1,000 legal protections and benefits that opposite-sex married couples enjoy. NOW and dozens of other civil rights groups have vowed to fight this move to institutionalize discrimination.

Women Remain a Minority in the Halls of Power

Only 14 percent of Congress members are women, and no woman has ever held either of the country's top political offices. On Aug. 26, Women's Equality Day, NOW's Political Action Committee announced its endorsement of former Ambassador and Senator Carol Moseley Braun, a candidate for president with a 25-year record fighting for women’s rights and civil rights at the local, state, national and international levels. Moseley Braun's candidacy is a prime example of what feminists strive for—women moving up through the pipeline to all levels of political office.

With the elections looming, we have work to do together. In the face of discouragement and indifference, women's groups continue the difficult work of lifting the status of women in the U.S. and the world. An energized feminist base, spending the coming months registering and mobilizing women voters around women's life-and-death issues, will ultimately lead to a victory for democracy, peace, fairness and equality.

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