Feminists, critics agree times are tough for women's movement

Monday, January 10, 2005

NEW YORK -- America's feminist leaders and their critics agree on at least one current political fact: These are daunting times for the women's movement as it braces for another term of an administration it desperately wanted to topple.

"The next four years are going to be tough, so we must be tougher," National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy recently told supporters. "Our health, our rights, and our democracy are teetering on the brink."

NOW, the Feminist Majority Foundation and numerous like-minded groups campaigned zealously against President Bush, contending that his economic agenda would inflict disproportionate harm on women and that his potential judicial appointments could jeopardize abortion.

To the feminists' dismay, Bush not only won -- but he sharply reduced the Democrats' "gender gap" edge among women voters. Republicans also increased their majorities in Congress; new GOP senators include several staunch foes of abortion.

Many of the conservative activists and organizations that cheered the GOP triumph -- and now claim expanded influence in Washington -- are stridently anti-feminist. The Rev. Jerry Falwell, for example, recently referred to NOW as "The National Order of Witches."

However, Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, says the sometimes harsh rhetoric matters less than the legislation and appointments which the Republicans seek to implement.

"The issue isn't whether they're mean-spirited or anti-women," Greenberger said. "What I do see is an administration with policies that are fundamentally out of touch with what women really need. ... They have other priorities that consistently outweigh and trump the everyday concerns that women have."

Referring collectively to conservative Republican leaders, Gandy said: "They like women just fine -- as long as we know our place, which is preferably under a man's protection.

"Their primary allegiance is to corporations and the wealthy," she said. "Giving tax breaks to them means the economic burden falls more on women."

Bush, of course, can make a strong case that he respects women -- his new Cabinet will likely have four, including Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, and women for years have been among his closest political and legal advisers.

Beyond Washington, meanwhile, women are making impressive professional gains -- as big-city police chiefs and university presidents, for example. They now make up roughly half the enrollment in U.S. medical schools. And though a wage gap persists, women now earn 80 percent of what men do, compared to 62 percent in 1980.

"Feminist leaders have failed to keep up with the times," said Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, whose writings are often critical of groups like NOW.

"Women have achieved parity with men in most fields," she said. "You'd think the feminists and women's studies professors would be celebrating, but in many ways they've never been more despondent."

Another conservative analyst of women's issues, Carrie Lukas of the Independent Women's Forum, said feminists "have increasingly marginalized themselves" by embracing an agenda that doesn't reflect most American women's priorities.

"They see government as the answer to all problems -- as the national health-care provider and day-care provider," Lukas said. "And they have made unfettered access to abortion the absolute centerpiece of their movement ... Their 'March for Women's Lives' last year seemed like a celebration of abortion."

Gandy, a NOW activist since 1973, is amused by suggestions that the women's movement is moribund.

"They've been writing headlines about the death of feminism since the '70s," she said. "It's a lot of wishful thinking on their part."

Among the movement's biggest worries are that Bush might appoint federal judges who favor outlawing abortion, that family-planning programs will lose crucial funding and that the president's proposed changes to Social Security would harm many widows and low-income women.

"Social security privatization is a bad deal for women," said Lisa Maatz, public policy director for the American Association of University Women. "It's not just a retirement program, it's a family insurance program that protects a lot of women who earn less then men throughout their lifetime and are less likely to have a pension of their own."

Maatz and her colleagues at AAUW also feel the government should do more to help low-income women gain access to colleges and vocational schools, and to crack down on sexual harassment throughout the educational system.

Looking ahead, feminists say one of their most crucial tasks is drawing more women into politics. Though the number of women in Congress increased slightly in the Nov. 2 election, the number of female state legislators has been stagnant for six years at about 22 percent of the total.

"We're looking for candidates now for 2006, for 2008," said Llenda Jackson-Leslie of the National Women's Political Caucus, which tries to encourage progressive women to run for office.

Despite conservatives' success in the election, feminists found some encouragement -- notably an increased turnout by low-income women in many areas, and the overwhelming re-election in populous California of Sen. Barbara Boxer, an outspoken women's rights advocate.

"We have to hang tight," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "This is going to be a tough time for us, but in the long run we have many things going in our direction. One important thing we've got -- people know they want more opportunities for their daughters."

On the Net:

National Organization for Women: http://www.now.org

Independent Women's Forum: http://www.iwf.org

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