Is Bill Clinton a Feminist?

By Burk, Martha | The Nation, February 8, 1993 | Go to article overview

Is Bill Clinton a Feminist?

Burk, Martha, The Nation

Of all the groups suffering losses during the Realgan/Bush years, women rank near the top. Compared with the 1960s and 1970s, when women were breaking down barriers in education, credit, employment, pregnancy discrimination and abortion rights, the Reagan era was a long dark tunnel. Reagan-appointed judges gutted Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, regulatory agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (E.E.O.C.) were effectively dismantled, enforcement of anti-discrimination laws was stopped and meanspirited anti-woman policies were the order of the day.

George Bush, despite promising a kinder, gentler nation, continued the attack on women's rights. His appointments of David Souter and Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court insured a right-wing majority, paving the way for the punitive assault on abortion rights in last summer's Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision. This twelve-year push to put women back in their 1950s place reached its zenith during the 1992 election campaign, when working women were vilified at the Republican convention and feminists were demonized as witches in Pat Robertson's rhetoric against the Iowa Equal Rights Amendment initiative.

The women's movement, now primarily consisting of Washington advocacy groups and their supporters in the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues, has been both diminished and somewhat balkanized as a result. With abortion rights being chipped away, advocates were effectively forced into a narrow one-note strategy of agitating from the outside to keep abortion legal. Any larger agenda was relegated to lip service, and isolated single-organization efforts came together only occasionally to work on a few measures like family and medical leave. There was little energy left for a truly coordinated push on legislation such as the Violence Against Women Act, originally sponsored in 1991 by Joseph Biden and Barbara Boxer, and new initiatives were seldom considered seriously.

Women in Congress fared no better with their colleagues. During the past twelve years Congress has grown accustomed to trading away the rights of women as bargaining chips in the larger game of "scratch my back" politics. Democratic majorities approved caps on damages for women in the 1991 Civil Rights Act, confirmed the Souter and Thomas nominations to the Supreme Court, agreed to exclude gender from hate-crimes legislation and went along with numerous funding cuts in women's programs. Even though Democrats have held a majority in both houses since 1987, that was not enough to override actual or threatened presidential vetoes on legislation of concern to women. This situation served some armchair feminists well, allowing them to declare their support for women but to plead that their hands were tied. Congressional leaders could also decline to bring legislation to the floor without an assured two-thirds majority, as they did with the Freedom of Choice Act before the 1992 elections--conveniently sparing members a recorded vote.

In a long-overdue backlash, women provided the margin of victory for Bill Clinton, favoring him over George Bush by an estimated thirteen points on Election Day. But just how much women will ultimately benefit is still an open question. Although Clinton was correctly perceived as being much stronger on women's issues than Bush, his campaign seemed to equate women's rights with abortion rights and little else. Beyond declaring his pro-choice credentials and promising to sign the relatively weak Family and Medical Leave Act, which President Bush vetoed in the last days before the election, he rarely pursued the women's vote in the campaign.

"Fair wages for all workers regardless of gender" is listed in the Clinton-Gore" Putting People First" manifesto, but pay equity, consistently women's highest priority when polled, was not emphasized on the stump. And while single women with children will surely be the primary beneficiaries if Clinton follows through on his plan to crack down on deadbeat dads, this campaign theme may have been crafted as much to appease the anti-welfare Reagan Democrats (uncollected child support pushes women onto the welfare rolls) as to appeal to the broader concerns of women voters. …

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