THE POLITICS OF THE POSSIBLE: What Women Can Gain Under Clinton

THE POLITICS OF THE POSSIBLE: What Women Can Gain Under Clinton

by Katherine Eban Finkelstein

Under George Bush, the halls and rooms of the White House were closed to us. We were always in a defensive mode, struggling to hold on to what we had,” recalls Julia Scott, Director of the National Black Women’s Health Project.

The 1992 elections brought the need for a defensive feminist posture to a close. Activists for women’s rights, along with millions of never-before-active women, successfully changed the face of American politics. EMILY’s List grew into the nation’s best-financed political action committee. A historic number of women were elected to Congress. And, for the first time in history, women, voting in their own self-interest, were pivotal in electing the new President (53% of women but only 48% of men voted for Clinton).

But along with the elation and hopefulness that culminated in the Clinton inaugural has come a kind of success anxiety. Being an “against-er” during the frankly anti-woman Reagan/Bush years was, at least, an easily defined position. Today, with a so-called friend in the White House, feminists are facing the insider’s subtle challenge. We’ve earned our right to the President’s ear. But reciting a litany of the problems women face is no longer a sufficient political statement. Our demands need to be made concrete and complete with strategic ideas for their accomplishment. The question now is not “What can Clinton do for us?” but “What can we do to ensure that women really make gains under the new administration?”

Drawing by Jody Williams; Hillary Rodham Clinton (center)

A mixed beginning President Clinton began with a flourish of good will toward the people who elected him. His second day on the job he repealed the most retro abortion rulings, including the Mexico City policy prohibiting the contribution of federal money to international organizations that counsel abortion. Clinton also lifted the gag rule that prohibited federally funded clinics from saying the “A” word. The ban on fetal tissue research and restrictions on abortion in the military went with it, and Clinton has advocated FDA research on RU-4S6, the French morning-after pill.

By February 5, the President had signed the Family and Medical Leave Act into law, guaranteeing employees the right to take leave from their jobs to care for sick family members – an act vetoed twice by George Bush.

Clinton’s appointments have been 40% women, to date. This good news was overshadowed by his mishandling of several sensitive nominations. When Clinton withdrew the Lani Guinier nomination, one rap star said he had “whirlpooled” on Guinier. Clinton discarded two successive female candidates for Attorney General over the “Nannygate” issue. And he’s shown a disheartening willingness to compromise on the issue of gays in the military. Columnist Julienne Malveaux expressed the disappointment and anger many women felt when she wrote: “President Clinton has the backbone of a jellyfish and the disingenuous character of a prevaricator.”

Undeniably, the President is eager to please. But unless feminists continue to make their voices heard, it’s not clear whether Clinton will hang in for the tough ones this season with a House schedule jam-packed with legislation crucial to women.

“People think the war is over,” notes Eleanor Smeal, President of the Fund for the Feminist Majority. “It’s not. There’s so much to be done.”

Coming attractions A preview of upcoming legislation includes: the Health Security Act, the Women’s Health Equity Act, two crucial pieces of abortion legislation, the Violence Against Women Act and the Gender Equity in Education Bill. Welfare reform, still in the planning stages, promises to be the next major agenda item behind health care. Other economic issues important to women, such as job training and pay equity, are not even on the table. But if women’s groups can help marshal the votes needed to pass the key bills before Congress in 1 994, more initiatives will emerge.

Ann Kolker, Public Policy Director at the National Women’s Law Center, notes that “the forces for change are strong, sweeping across segments of the public and policy makers who have not traditionally worked closely together.” For example, the Gender Equity in Education Bill (which seems sure to pass), has wide bipartisan support from such unlikely collaborators as senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT). The bill would facilitate the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws under Title IX.

Alliances with other groups are essential. Also, though female representation in Congress has doubled, from 5% to 10%, this does not constitute a major shift in the gender balance of power. Diane Feinstein’s campaign slogan, “2% is okay for milk, but not for the Senate,” acknowledged this power imbalance.

Safer streets and homes There has been a resounding absence of an overall national strategy to address women’s needs. Problems have been addressed piecemeal – a breast here, a streetlight there – because this approach costs less and requires less thought.

The Violence Against Women Act is one such example. It proposes to make streets safer, crack down on domestic violence, create civil rights protections so that women can sue for damages, diminish campus violence and raise the awareness of violence among judges. While regarded as a step forward, it is still an insufficient response to the tremendous increase in domestic and public violence.

A 1992 Senate Judiciary Committee report documented a horrifying increase in violence against women, and an almost non-existent judicial response. Every 13 seconds a woman is subject to domestic violence; 98% of rape victims never see the arrest or prosecution of their attackers.

“Compared to other crimes, rape is treated like a jaywalking offense. Women are being beaten up and killed,” says Smeal. “This is not proactive legislation.”

Some activists, frustrated with domestic legislation, are taking an international approach through the United Nations to ensure that violence against women is included as a human rights abuse. Member states would be accountable to the UN, thus increasing the level of seriousness with which the problem is viewed. Soon, they hope, women will be able to turn to international law for redress.

Equality in medical funding In the fight for healthcare funding, it’s always been boys against girls. The Women’s Health Equity Act, an omnibus bill from the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues which includes 32 provisions, presents a broad agenda for improving health care research and services for women.

“Whether we are talking about excluding women from medical research or giving short shrift to research on breast cancer or contraception and infertility, women have been treated differently because of their reproductive systems,” says Rep. Pat Schroeder, co-chair of the caucus for Women’s Issues. The fight has traditionally come down to body parts. What’s more important, a breast or a penis? For example, many health insurance policies cover penile implants, while the same policies do not cover reconstructive breast surgery after cancer, which is considered cosmetic.

Now that the Year of the Woman is over, the battles of 1994 will demand funding, not reverence. Despite the scope of the Women’s Health Equity Act, there is no new breast cancer initiative because there is no money. The recycled initiatives, like the National Breast Cancer Strategy Act, simply try to maintain old ground.

Reform of the healthcare system is a major priority for women. Hillary Clinton’s task force has promised universal coverage for contraception, abortion, prenatal and post-natal care, as well as for mammograms, pap smears and pelvic exams. As political deals are cut to get the healthcare package through Congress, it’s essential that measures to protect women’s health not be bargained away.

Health insurance has traditionally been linked to employment. As a result, a majority of the 37 million uninsured Americans are women, such as single mothers who tend not to fit stereotypical patterns of employment. A continued link between employment and health insurance puts women in jeopardy, when over 15 million American “women of child-tearing age have no public or private medical coverage for maternity care. Given this statistic, it is not surprising that the US has the 22nd highest mortality rate in the world, lagging behind even Ireland and Singapore.

The Clinton administration s approach to women’s healthcare is both preventive and comprehensive, assures Dr. Susan Simmons, a senior policy analyst for women’s health at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Substance abuse treatment and mental health screening are now seen as a necessary part of any comprehensive health plan.

“Women’s issues are widely perceived as being human issues,” says Sarah Kovner, a feminist activist and Special Assistant to HHS Secretary Donna Shalala. But this perception may not be widespread enough.

Abortion foes threaten healthcare reform When the budget battle is raging on Capitol Hill, will essential services for women be discarded as luxury items?

Universal abortion coverage may be the first to go. Expect the abortion issue to be politicized and exploited, rather than debated as part of serious, preventive reproductive health reform. Already, insurance providers are vying for exemptions.

Catholic institutions, major U.S. healthcare providers, will be exempt from providing abortion and contraception, Mrs. Clinton told Congress on September 27. But how far will these exemptions extend? If institutions are exempt on the basis of doctrine, will individual providers be exempt on the basis of conscience? “Conscience is more vulnerable to lobbyists and protesters,” warns Frances Kissling, Director of Catholics for a Free Choice.

Pro-choice activists fear that exemptions are a window that will continue to open. In conservative regions of the country, health alliances may have no abortion providers. For this reason, Marcia Greenberger, Co-President of the National Women’s Law Center, says, “Access is key, and non-negotiable.” Limited access to health services has always hurt poor women who can’t afford transportation, and when 83% of U.S. counties have no identified abortion provider, this is troubling.

“The administration is walking a fine line on abortion,” says one female policy expert who asked that her name be withheld. “Clinton claims it’s absolutely a covered benefit, but he’s already trying to carve out ways to exempt people from their obligation to the poor.”

One barometer of both the fight that lies ahead and the tenor of the debate, may be the battle over the Senate Medicaid abortion limit (the Hyde Amendment), fought and lost this summer. Pro-choice lawmakers managed to scrape out an exception for abortions in the case of rape or incest, but not to lift the sixteen-year-old ban on other federally-funded abortions for poor women. Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) countered objections to the ban by casting aspersions on the morals of poor women.

Female lawmakers anticipate just such a down and dirty debate over morals and rights when universal access to abortion is debated as part of the entire health reform package. “Many of the leaders of the anti-abortion movement don’t give a whit about healthcare,” a spokeswoman for the Congressional Women’s Caucus points out.

With rancorous sentiment and violence abounding, the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) and Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) are crucial safeguard for women’s reproductive freedom. FACE would facilitate a federal response to clinic blockades. Local law enforcement can no longer adequately protect abortion providers and clinics against soaring violence. Death threats against doctors who perform abortions increased 600% in the last year.

The FACE bill is three years old. “No one was interested in it until a doctor was killed,” says Ron Fitzsimmons, Executive Director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, referring to the shooting death of Dr. David Gunn in March outside his clinic in Pensacola, Florida.

Pro-choice activists believe the violence is a nationally orchestrated conspiracy to close clinics, and have demanded an FBI investigation. They cite the terrorist tactics of anti-abortion extremists, including bombings, arson, chemical attacks, and the crossing of state lines so as to obscure jurisdiction. Despite encouragement from Janet Reno, it’s still all quiet at the Justice Department.

Steady as you go For 1994, it remains to be seen whether women’s needs will be treated as a burdensome political demand (though the “special interest” group constitutes 52% of the population), or as a human need inextricably linked to the well-being of the entire population.

For women fighting on the legislative front, the battles come down to power and money. The ERA is dead in the water. There is still no Pay Equity Bill before Congress. Pat Schroeder, a seasoned congresswoman, still does not have her own committee. “Guys who have been there eight minutes have committees,” complains Pat Reuss, senior policy analyst, NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. “Troglodytes still chair the important ones.” Clearly, three hundred and sixty five days of the Year of the Woman were not enough.

So perhaps it is not the gains achieved so tar under the Clinton administration that give feminists hope, but the relief of moving forward and no longer fighting a daily retrograde battle with a hostile administration. The word from Washington insiders is to take it slow and steady. As Reuss says, “When you come up from deep sea diving, you rise slowly so you don’t get the bends.”*

Katherine Eban Finkelstein worked on the New York Clinton campaign, and writes about art and politics.