Advocates helped shaped women friendly policies, and they cheer reversals of harmful Bush initiatives.
by Peggy Simpson
April 29, 2009
Women’s rights activists give high marks to President Obama for his fast footwork in reversing many policies of the Reagan and Bush presidencies.
They also look forward to significant happenings once a newly created White House council on women and girls gets into high gear. Bush had eliminated a women’s office; Obama put it back, expanded the mandate to look at the impact of federal policy on girls as well as women, and put in charge his top advisor, Valerie Jarrett.
Overall, much good has happened. The axiom in politics, however, is to wait and see: promises are one thing but “the devil is in the details.”
This time, the details also drew high marks from the feminists.
The economic collapse provided the impetus for Obama to propose and get through Congress an array of policy and spending changes that even the most optimistic activist couldn’t have predicted a year ago.
Feminists were on the inside helping shape emergency economic recovery bills and the gigantic stimulus package. Part of their job was to make sure the Obama economists and budget strategists knew where women are today. And aren’t. They made sure the architects of the recovery packages understood where to target the money to reach women, especially low-income women who are disproportionately affected by the recession.
This was well beyond making sure that the money went beyond “shovel ready” road-building jobs, to reach jobs and sectors dominated by women.
The result was a massive increase in funds targeted at low-income women and women heads of households, directly and indirectly, in health, education, unemployment benefits, childcare subsidies and more.
When the federal government told the states it was committing mega-billions of dollars to shore up Medicaid funding as part of the economic recovery act, “this probably protected health care coverage for 20 million women,” says Joan Entmacher, vice president of the National Women’s Law Center.
Medicaid is an exceptionally expensive entitlement for the states. With tax revenues plummeting, states were poised to make major cuts in Medicaid by restricting eligibility to its programs. The federal government promised a new injection of funds for Medicaid—with one stipulation: that states could not restrict current eligibility. “That was very, very important in protecting women’s health,” said Entmacher.
Billions more money went to extend unemployment benefits but states getting the money also had to agree to expand their program, something long sought by women’s rights activists but, even in this recession, opposed by a half-dozen Republican governors. They had to expand benefits in at least two of the new policy initiatives that would provide unemployment benefits to:
- part-time workers (and these are disproportionably women);
- people who left jobs because of compelling family reasons such as illness, domestic violence or care giving;
- people who are in certified job training programs but whose unemployment benefits are about to expire.
In addition, they could provide an additional bonus to unemployed workers with dependents.
Already, a dozen states have reformed their laws to incorporate these policies, Entmacher said.
Other economic recovery programs boosted assistance to low-income families, most of them headed by women, increasing funds for food stamps, housing assistance and child support. And $5 billion was put into programs for families on welfare, as a temporary expansion of current benefits.
“That is remarkable, given Congress’ reluctance (on these issues),” said Entmacher. “It was a recognition that in a recession, you want to provide more assistance to these families because the situation will be getting much worse. Females heading these households already have double-digit unemployment numbers.”
Money was put toward expanding Pell Grants, now being used extensively by women to retool their educational skill levels, for community colleges and for public schools to head off waves of job losses.
One of Obama’s first actions was to reauthorize the S-CHIP children’s health care program. President Bush had threatened a veto of it a year earlier. The Obama team not only extended its life, it expanded coverage for pregnant immigrant women and their children, although undocumented children still are not covered, says Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women.
“I’m surprised this was not a longer, more difficult battle,” she said. “But the president and Democratic congressional leaders put their muscle behind it.”
Eleanor Smeal, head of the Feminist Majority, said there is a lot more on the platter but she agreed with Obama’s priority on reversing Bush policies. These included:
- reversing the Global Gag Rule, which had barred federal funds from Planned Parenthood and other groups, precluding their offering a full range of reproductive health services overseas (including in countries where AIDS is rampant and condoms are seen by local communities as one of the key tools to control it);
- restoring $50 million in U.S. funding for the UN Population Fund, which had been held up during the Bush tenure;
- signing the Lily Ledbetter act which reversed a Supreme Court ruling that had decimated a woman’s right to bring equal pay lawsuits, a bill that had been held up by Republicans when they controlled Congress;
- allowing university health centers—and about 400 clinics serving low-income women—to purchase low-cost birth control, overturning a Bush era action that had banned such discounts, causing the cost of contraceptives to quadruple;
- permitting over-the-counter sale of the morning-after pill to 17 year olds, something held up by the Food & Drug Administration under a Bush appointee;
- putting in motion mechanisms to reverse one of the last Bush policies, the so-called “federal health care refusal rule,” which would have greatly expanded the ability of hospitals, physicians, pharmacists and others to refuse to supply reproductive health services or products;
- putting $2 billion into childcare subsidy programs, which had been frozen since 2002, and another $2.1 billion into Head Start programs, which one Bush budget had proposed eliminating.
Nothing explicit is contained in these economic recovery and stimulus packages about training women for non-traditional jobs, such as those involved in “greening” of the economy through retrofitting buildings. But the laws make clear that these opportunities will be available to women.
And not only the White House council on women and girls will be monitoring this, so will the Department of Labor, under Secretary Hilda Solis, former chair of the congressional women’s caucus and a onetime labor organizer in California.
“She’s the strongest advocate we’ve had there in some time,” said Smeal. “We’re coming off a time when we had to worry about the Bush Administration wanting to eliminate women’s employment data—just stop keeping the data—to someone who will make it much stronger.”
Nonetheless, appointments are still a point of concern. “We’re excited a large portion of Obama’s appointments are women of color,” said Ms. Executive Editor Kathy Spillar. “But his appointments are one area in which he could improve. He has appointed some outstanding women, but only 32 percent of his top appointments, thus far, are women.”
Still pending with congressional passage far from assured: the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would strengthen the Equal Pay Act. It has passed the House but is blocked in the Senate. Not even introduced this year: a bill to strengthen enforcement of Title VII, the law that prohibits workplace discrimination based on sex, race, religion, or national origin.
“We want them both,” said Smeal. “People think these problems are solved but we know they aren’t.”
“What we’re doing now is reversing the retrograde positions of the Bush presidency but we also must go forward,” she said.
As we do, there are special moments, such as one Tuesday, when Michelle Obama joined Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi and others in dedicating the Sojourner Truth statue in the Capitol. That is another remarkable sign of the times.