The road to the international agreements forged in Cairo and Beijing was long and fraught with cultural potholes, but nothing like the challenges that our own government placed in the path of women’s reproductive self-determination. Now, there’s been a 180 degree turn back to the future, and the world is relieved. But other countries have moved forward, so what’s the next step for the U.S.?
Linda Hirshman, author of Get to Work and columnist for Slate’s new XX among many other accomplishments, and I wrote this commentary. After we were rejected by the New York Times and the Washington Post (what else is new?), we decided it was too important an issue not to see the light of day. So we’re publishing it on RHREalityCheck, Huffington Post, and here on good ol’ Heartfeldt.
At the very moment the Obama administration’s decision to seek a U.S. seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council grabbed headlines, the United States quietly took the reins on the most important human rights issue for humanity’s future: sexual and reproductive rights. On March 31, State Department Acting Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration, Margaret Pollack, told delegates to the United Nations Commission on Population and Development, meeting in New York, that America was back.
Marking a 180 degree turnaround from Bush administration policies that fought international efforts to enable people to control their own reproductive fate, the U.S. will once again defend the “human rights and fundamental freedoms of women” and support “universal access to sexual and reproductive health.” Abstinence-only sex education, the bête noir of health providers attempting to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, was Kung-Fu kicked aside. Human rights apply to all regardless of sexual orientation. The U.S. commits to ratify CEDAW, the women’s rights treaty already signed by 185 nations, and even endorses “equal partnerships and sharing of responsibilities in all areas of family life, including in sexual and reproductive life.”
The global sigh of relief was palpable. For with all its money and diplomatic resources, the U.S. is the 10,000 gorilla in international reproductive policy. Now the question is, while this is certainly change we can believe in, is it all the change we need?
U.S. foreign policy since the 1970’s has included funding for international family planning programs. We’ve been the largest contributor to these preventive reproductive health services (by U.S. law, abortions aren’t funded) globally. The U.S. led the march to the groundbreaking 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development agreement that women’s rights and health, including reproductive rights and health, are central to development and poverty-reduction, environmental sustainability, and the strength and security of democracy itself.
Since the Reagan administration, though, cultural and religious conservatives have fought U.N. commitment to women’s reproductive rights. Reagan issued the first global gag rule denying U.S. funding to organizations that perform or even discuss abortion.
President Bill Clinton rescinded the gag rule; George W. Bush’s first official act was to reinstate it. In the last eight years, the United States government, in alignment with fundamentalist Islamic nations as well as Christian fundamentalists and Catholics, used U.N. meetings aggressively to push abstinence education and faith-based institutions as the source of guidance on sexuality and reproductive matters. And U.S. staff on the ground enforced the strictures on the ground with increasing zeal.
Women’s right to safe abortions were the sharp point of this wedge issue, but preventive family planning, comprehensive sex education, and HIV/AIDS prevention programs were opposed equally. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that—ironically–each year Bush denied them the $34 million funding Congress authorized, it led to 2 million preventable unintended pregnancies, 800,000 induced abortions, 4,700 maternal deaths, and 77,000 deaths of both mother and child.
European countries took up some slack; UNFPA’s largest supporter is now tiny Netherlands for example. And many of the nations in the developing world have contributed more than their fair share commitment stated in the Cairo agreement. But U.S. legitimacy suffered. After euphoria in Cairo, followed by the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing where then-First Lady Hillary Clinton declared, “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights,” reproductive rights advocates struggled to hold land they had gained while the largest richest country in the world aided the sexual conservatives.
Now all that has changed again. Not only did Obama rescind the global gag rule, UNFPA’s funding was reinstated and increased to $50 million. USAID’s 2009 budget for international family planning assistance increased to $545 million from $457 million in 2008. All great news. The 10,000 pound gorilla has pivoted back to the future.
But much of the world has advanced since Cairo to a more ambitious agenda for women’s full social and economic equality. And what does that mean for the U.S. vision for its own leadership role for women, population, and development globally?
Domestically, five former directors of USAID’s Population and Reproductive Health Program are calling for immediate doubling of U.S. funding for family planning overseas, to $1.2 billion and increasing to $1.5 billion over the next few years, if global anti-poverty and development goals are to be achieved amid the worldwide economic downturn.
And it is essential that the U.S. address the legitimate place of safe and legal abortion within women’s reproductive health and human rights; after all, in meanwhile, groups opposed to women’s rights and abortion are redoubling their efforts to push back. That is why the Center for Reproductive Rights and other organizations are working to establish legal theories regarding why reproductive rights are indeed human rights , and we can see in countries such as Mexico how these perspectives are advancing women’s access to safe, legal abortion based on human rights rather than the right to privacy as in the U.S.
Michelle Goldberg argued persuasively in her recent book, “The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World,” that the absence of women’s reproductive rights contributes to overpopulation, environmental disaster, family instability, HIV/AIDS, and sex-ratio imbalances that threaten global stability. Other matters may make more news, but nothing will make more difference. Whatever the next steps in this continuing struggle, U.S. policy will lead the way.
If art imitates life and pop culture depicts contemporary life most real and raw, then these new Female Force comic books deliver a powerful message that women in top political leadership have truly saturated our cultural consciousness.
There’s irony in that Female Force’s creators at Bluewater Productions are male, but also an important question of whether one gender is more likely than the other to see an opportunity and take a risk to grab it. And perhaps, as marketing guru Richard Laermer says in the video, this is just another business venture and it will sink or succeed based on whether anyone buys these comics.
Traditionally, comic book buyers have been largely male–though I certainly remember in my youth racing to the news stand on Sundays for the latest“Archie” comic books, mainly to see what Veronica and Betty were up to. I liked Veronica better because she had dark hair like I do.
And that’s probably the key here: will enough young women see Michelle and Hillary and, goddess help us, Sarah as characters they can not only relate to but characters that capture their imagination sufficiently that they will buy the comic and even return to purchase the next episodes? What do you think? Has the female superheroine saturated our consciousness sufficiently to make comic books about female leaders not just a momentary fad but a sustainable classic?
While thinking these questions over, feast your eyes on these graphics (with thanks to Jill Miller Zimon for calling this to my attention):
I was over at the UN last week. Staffers from a variety of countries mentioned how great it feels to the international community to know that the US is back–resuming its rightful place in among the member countries of the United Nations. One woman said to me that she goes around these days smiling and saying “Yes, we can!”
What gave me goose bumps? Being reminded what a profound impact Hillary Clinton is making as Secretary of State–and a SOS who understands and prioritizes women in her approach to the rest of the world at that– when I signed onto my Twitter account (I’m Heartfeldt if you want to follow me) a moment ago and saw the following tweet from Dipnotes, the Department of State’s blog name and Twitter handle.
Question of the Week: How Best Can Women’s Rights Be Expanded Internationally?
The world recognizes March 8 as International Women’s Day. During her recent travel to the Middle East, Secretary Clinton met with women who are developing their own businesses through a microcredit program. Promoting women’s economic and political participation is an important element of U.S. foreign policy and a key component of democratic development.
Yes, indeed we can! Check out the Dipnotes website and leave your opinion there. And please tell us what you said here at Heartfeldt also.
A former mentor used to tell me this about teaching: “You have to start where they are, not where you wish they were.” She was speaking of students of course, but the principle applies to politics too. Here’s the dime version of women’s political history in U.S. politics. Reminding ourselves of this long, still under construction, road to gender parity is essential to understanding the boulders of fundamental social change Hillary Clinton had to push uphill in her quest for the presidency. Read the full article :The Importance of Being Hillary” for applications to leadership and women in all fields of endeavor.
I’ve waited to weigh in on Caroline Kennedy’s come-lately bid for political office because I’m fascinated by the competing arguments. I almost don’t want them to end in the decision about who’ll fill Hillary Clinton’s seat as the junior senator from New York, once she’s confirmed as secretary of state. But decide Governor David Paterson must.
So what are the narratives of his choice?
It is a charming story to imagine Caroline as the first woman to wield the leadership scepter of the Kennedy clan, which is the closest thing to royalty America has, our de facto royal family. (Unless of course you are a Republican who regards the Bushes as holding that mantle, but right now it’s our turn.) And New Yorkers so love celebrity that you could almost feel the “whoosh” of heads snapping around at first mentions of the possibility that she might represent them in Washington. Think of the assets she brings. Immediate media attention! Immediate invitations to the best DC parties! And of course, immediate tugs at our heartstrings when we see the great liberal lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy, struggling with brain cancer, working the phones on his neice’s behalf. For as kings will do, he confers upon his chosen successor the mantle of his legacy.
While Caroline clearly has been tested by personal tragedy and possesses her mother’s gentility, and though she has used her famous name effectively to raise money for New York City public schools, she has demonstrated by her life out of the spotlight, her failure even to vote in a number of elections, and her comments about her political ambitions or the lack of them previously that she has neither the appetite nor the intestinal fortitude for the meat grinder of politics. (See a touching slideshow of her life here.) I suspect she would make an unimpressive senator–a Democratic Elizabeth Dole, who could easily get elected on her name identity but couldn’t or wouldn’t get a darn thing done once in the Washington swamp.
On the other hand, leadership guru Anne Doyle–who originally agreed with my assessment–made a compelling argument that we might just be looking at Caroline’s qualifications through a male-dominated cultural lens:
Once I finished venting, though, I started thinking: “But Anne, what about that point you’re making in the book you’re writing on women’s leadership? You know, the one about how our American culture devalues women’s work?”
We routinely recognize men’s military and sports experience as valuable credentials directly transferable to leadership. Many a man has leveraged both on his way to political office. Yet, we place little value (other than Hallmark cards and profuse ‘thank yous’) on the essential work of parenting, the lion’s share of which is done by women.The same goes for the millions of hours of unpaid volunteer work for hundreds of thousands of non-profit boards and community organizations. We have barely begun to value the skills women hone in those arenas…By the time I finished thinking all of this through, I ended up viewingKennedy’s decision as one of leadership rather than entitlement. The rhythms of women’s lives are very different from those of men. I can’t think of anyone more perfectly positioned to show America’s women achievers that there is more than one path — and timetable — to leadership.
Paterson is said to be annoyed by the pressure being applied to appoint (or anoint) Kennedy as Senator. And his choice is constrained in some ways from the get go. He’d better not even think about appointing a man to fill the state’s first female-held New York Senate seat, especially in a year when women held the key to electing Barack Obama. And his choice is going to be scrutinized for her experience and ability to marshal important constituencies despite the tilt toward celebrity.
When Hillary Clinton decided to run, it was fair to say she had carpetbagged to New York. But nobody could say she didn’t have the cojones for a bruising race and an even more bruising Senate service. And indeed she ran for the seat; she wasn’t appointed to it.
At the time, it seemed terribly unfair that Cong. Nita Lowey stepped aside in favor of Clinton’s candidacy. Today, there are so many women in New York’s congressional delegation who could ably step into the Senate seat and who have earned their stripes to do so. All of them know the issues and have a record to stand on. We hare just beginning to learn Kennedy’s positions on important policies such as reproductive rights, economic recovery, and health care. Perhaps she is just beginning to figure them out herself.
Lowey remains a key player in the House; however, she and NY’s other long-time, high profile Congresswoman, Louise Slaughter–who has endorsed Kennedy–are in their 70’s, arguably with too few years left to cement New York’s power in the Senate.
Cong. Carolyn Maloney tops my list of candidates. She has demonstrated a high level of initiative in advancing progressive policies, even when the Democrats’ minority position meant slim chances of passage. That kind of proactive approach will be needed in the days to come. She’s been endorsed by major women’s organizations such as NOW and the Feminist Majority, and Paterson is feeling their grassroots pressure to countervail Teddy’s. And Ted Kennedy doesn’t vote in New York.
In the end, I am convinced we shouldn’t let our tenderness for Ted or our affection for the Kennedys as American royalty trump the other qualifications in picking the best senator for New York. And I’d rather tell the American dream narrative that any girl can grow up to be a senator–you don’t have to be “royalty” to have a chance.
There’s no question that Caroline Kennedy would make a top notch diplomat, as ambassador to almost anywhere. And perhaps this princess can best serve the country by representing it to her peers in another land.
I want to share in this fascinating discussion I participated in yesterday on GRITtv hosted by Laura Flanders. We covered Barack Obama’s selection of Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff and talked about who we’d like to see fill the rest of Obama’s cabinet. Alexis McGill Executive Director of Citizen Change, Dan Gerstein former Senior Adviser for Senator Joe Lieberman’s Vice Presidential and Presidential campaigns, David Bender, the host of Air America’s Politically Direct, and Christine Cegelis, a Democratic Candidate for Congress in Illinois in 2004 were also there to weigh in.
Let me know what you think. Who’s your dream team on the cabinet? Who in particular are the women you’d like to see appointed?
You can find just about anything on the web these days. These 14 pointers on how to walk a tightrope ought to be required reading for political candidates, especially candidates who are any sort of historic “first”.
The key instruction is: “Don’t look down”. That’s less about technique than about having the courage to keep going, to be true to your mission and not allow either internal fear or external forces to disrupt your balance. This is a hard lesson, and history is littered with candidates who have teetered and fallen from their precarious high wire hike.
Last weekend, Courtney Martin asked me to participate in a panel she moderated, “The American Hero and the American Dream” for the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. We talked about the life paths walked by the presidential and vice presidential candidates, and how their personal narratives played into their quest for office. Campaign 2008 takes the prize for fascinating tightrope stories in which gender, racial, an ideology politics threaten to knock candidates off balance at any second.
Charlton McIlwain , NYU Assistant Professor of Culture and Communication (he’s speaking in the photo above), raised the tightrope metaphor in explaining why Barack Obama lists to the cool, calm, collected side. John McCain can get away with being an angry white man with impunity. But as a black man, Obama has to reassure voters by standing ramrod straight and looking unflappable, in an almost stereotypically WASPy way, up there on that shaky tightrope.
McCain has his own tightrope to walk, perched as he is between the raging right of his party and the independent voters he must woo to win.
Ironically and unwittingly, Hillary Clinton paved the way for Sarah “Pitbull” Palin. Ironically, Hillary’s uphill battle against overt sexism (the Hillary Nutcracker, the KFC Meal with its fat thighs, the way Chris Matthews excoriated her for expressing confidence in her candidacy, comments on her pantsuits, her cackle, her cleavage, her whatever) made Sarah’s path easier. Also because of Hillary’s candidacy, the American public is more accustomed to seeing that leadership can come with breasts and a higher pitched voice. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that Palin’s worldview represents the most cynical co-opting of feminism. As author Robin Morgan put it:
Nor can you just slot one (qualified) woman out and slot a different (unqualified) one in: women are not building-brick toys. Regrettably, some of my colleagues in the media seem unable to grasp this. Having faced justifiable fury for their treatment of HRC, they now tiptoe crazily around Palin for fear that to criticize her at all will be—whoops!—“sexist.”
Palin, for her part, seems oblivious that she’s on a tightrope, though she acknowledges she chose those glasses to balance those red peeky-toed high heels she’s fond of with a touch of dowdiness. Thanks to Title IX, she has the competitive athleticism to best any man, and she always looks perky. People like for a woman to look perky.
But Joe Biden, the most traditional of all the candidates this year, the “clean and articulate” Mr. Smith Goes to Washington guy, might just end up with the most challenging tightrope walk of all when he goes up against Palin in the vice-presidential debate tonight. She could eat his lunch just by showing up and smiling adorably while he puts his foot squarely into his mouth as he is prone to do. If Biden displays his knowledge experience too much, he could appear arrogant; if he fails to clearly demonstrate his knowledge and experience, he will have missed his opportunity to define himself as—to coin a term—ready to lead.
When walking a tightrope, the real trick is not to let it become a noose with which to hang oneself.
Update on Sunday, January 4, 2009 at 09:29PM by Gloria Feldt
Watch the video of this event.
Updated Sept. 15:
You know the saying–after all is said and done, a lot more is said than done. Nowhere has that been more true than all that has been said about Sarah Palin and what her candidacy means.
Maria Hinojosa , Senior Correspondent for PBS’s newsmagazine NOW has a forthcoming program on everyone’s topic du jour: Women, Politics, and Power, and she’s doing the asking. She’s posed some questions to me for their website. Republican Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachman answers the same questions. See it all at the PBS website now.
Here’s the complete version of the questions and what I said in response.
Q: Some people say Sen. John McCain http://www.johnmccain.com/ chose Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate believing she was selected only because she is a woman. Do they have a point?
A: It’s THE point. I was sure McCain would pick a woman after Obama picked the good grey Joe Biden as his running mate (male, white, 65, chosen for foreign policy experience). That and other political circumstances worked in Palin’s favor—her youth counteracts McCain’s age (72 ), she has strong appeal to the right-wing anti-choice, anti-gay, pro-gun, anti-science evangelical base McCain desperately needs.
And McCain’s campaign was in such trouble that he had little to lose by taking the risk of choosing Palin. But, yes, it was cynical sexism at its worst.
Q: In her acceptance speech, Gov. Palin said American women “can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.” If she becomes vice president, would that be a step forward for all women?
A: It makes my feminist heart sing that even the Republican right knows women are the key to the 2008 elections. That said, voters will soon realize that Sarah Palin is to women’s rights what Clarence Thomas and Ward Connerly
are to civil rights: the antithesis of the struggle for social justice and equality. Palin’s selection would be a giant leap backward, away from the aspirations of the American Dream that brought my grandparents to this great country, away from real hope and true change.
Q: Gov. Palin is against abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. How do you think American women will respond to that?
We’d better make it a wake-up call to reject her party’s platform http://www.gop.com/2008Platform/ that gives fertilized eggs more legal rights than women, and calls for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion even to save the woman’s life.
A: Palin demands privacy and respect for her family’s choices (i.e., her pregnant daughter , her own decision to have a child with Down Syndrome) while she works to strip away the privacy and choices of all other American women. That hypocrisy alone will turn women off. It forces us to ask: does Palin have the character we want in someone a heartbeat from the presidency?
Q: There were charges of sexism in media coverage of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Now there are charges of sexism in the coverage of Gov. Palin. Has the media been sexist in their campaign coverage?
A: Ironically, Hillary’s uphill battle against overt media sexism (the Hillary Nutcracker, the KFC Meal with its fat thighs, the way Chris Matthews excoriated her for expressing confidence in her candidacy, comments on her pantsuits, her cackle, her cleavage, her whatever) made Sarah’s path easier. The media are gentler with her by far than they were with Hillary. Also because of Hillary’s candidacy, both the media and the American public are more accustomed to seeing that leadership can come with breasts and a higher pitched voice.
Q: Do you feel the Democratic candidates are treating Gov. Palin differently because she’s a woman?
A: I think the Democrats misjudged who their competition would be and have had to regroup. But Barack Obama comes from a younger generation well accustomed to working as equals with women. It might be a little more problematic for Biden, but overall, the Democrats have strong appeal to women because women know where their best interests lie–about the economy, health care, war and peace, and their own human and civil rights. The issues are the issues, regardless of whether the candidate is male or female.
Q: Is it fair or is it sexist to question Gov. Palin’s technical qualification to be Vice President?
A: Absolutely, fair. And not just fair, but essential. If she is indeed qualified, she should welcome the scrutiny. If not, voters deserve to know. Especially because John McCain is the oldest presidential candidate we’ve had and has had bouts with cancer. News anchor Bob Schieffer just said on the evening news that 20% of vice presidents have become president because of death or resignation of the president. So it is essential to have a vice president who really can step in as president if necessary.
Q: There’s been discussion about whether Gov. Palin can handle the job given that she has five children. Is that an appropriate election issue?
A: No, not unless the same questions are asked of male candidates too. Now, that might make for some interesting media coverage! Maybe Maria will get that scoop.
Q: Why do you believe the United States ranks 69th in the world in the percentage of women holding national office?
A: Actually, we’re an embarrassing 84th. For most of American history there were institutional barriers, first of laws then of social expectations for women to be wives and mothers running the homes while men ran the businesses and politics. But in the last few decades, we’ve made great strides recruiting, training, and supporting women who run for office. Now, the onus is on women to walk through the doors that have been opened for us. Go, run, now is my advice to young women. A bird needs both wings to fly. So does our country.
Here’s the Q and A as published.
I had intended to blog throughout the Democratic Convention. But there came a moment when I just wanted to be a spectator. Partly this was motivated by the fact that my husband Alex and I were simultaneously shopping for (and finally picking) a new apartment, an endeavor that diverts one’s attention considerably.
So I took a couple of days off from writing just to soak up the historic events. I especially enjoy lavishing myself with the rich sounds and sights of major speakers’ rhetoric, turning every nuance of what was said or not said around in my mind and analyzing their delivery.
Last night, Alex and I went to watch Obama’s speech with a group of friends who were all charged up and ready to go out and work for him. Dawn, a young woman who’d attended the first few days of the convention, had brought hats and placards, and the flags we frequently waved to signal our approval of some speaker’s point, were provided by the host, Loretta, along with all-American Chinese food and ice cream sandwiches for sustenance.
That afternoon, a wave of sadness had washed over me unexpectedly. Yep, I thought I’d gotten over the fact that the Democratic nominee wouldn’t be a woman, and that not even the vice presidential candidate would be a woman. For so long, I thought sure….
I wanted to be in total celebratory mode that America would have its first African American major party nominee. And I do celebrate this incredible advance, but not without a dash of bittersweetness.
After all, the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and 70’s awakened my social justice instincts and drew me into the front line activism that led me to work for women’s civil rights and reproductive justice for over three decades. But it was also the way civil rights organization leaders, virtually all men, tended to treat gender-based injustice as having lesser importance, that made me realize we needed a women’s rights movement too.
Obama’s speech was excellent, but not quite great, comforting if not moving. Strong on substance as it needed to be, yet not as strong on the rhetoric as he can be. I don’t remember any of his specific lines, which is a clue. And though the warm-up speeches by Al Gore and Dick Durbin touched on reproductive rights, Obama’s spoke only in a downplayed, appeasing way about reproductive justice, even though he stood on the podium in a state with a pending ballot initiative that intends not just to outlaw abortion but to take down many kinds of birth control with it, granting fertilized eggs full personhood status while demoting women to second class citizenship:
What has also been lost is our sense of common purpose, and that’s what we have to restore.
We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.
The — the reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals.
I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in a hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.
(I left in the gun control part to illustrate that women’s rights to reproductive self-determination and gay rights get equated to just another policy issue that it’s ok for people to disagree on. Would he say the same about civil rights based on ethnicity or religion? I think not. And pray tell, why didn’t he mention his co-sponsorship of the Freedom of Choice Act?)
I’d thought all along that a ticket with both Clinton and Obama on it, in whichever order, would be the American dream ticket that would affirm for me the reason my grandparents came to this country from Eastern Europe almost 100 years ago.And if he didn’t go with Clinton, that he should choose another women such as Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius or Arizona’s Gov. Janet Napolitano, women who clearly have stellar executive experience, if he wanted to attract those 18 million voters–especially the majority of them who are women–who cast their lot with Hillary during the primaries.
Now that John McCain has chosen Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, the already immense rock Obama was pushing up a steep hill to garner those women’s votes just became infinitely heavier. Though Palin is staunchly anti-choice, pro-gun, and anti-gay rights, she
is a young, attractive woman whose presence on the ticket coupled with the absence of strong pro-choice rhetoric from Obama will lure many voters into the complacency about reproductive rights that contributed mightily to George Bush having two terms. The Rush Limbaugh and evangelical hard right are gleeful about this pick.
It’s probably a good thing I took a few days off. Looks like there will be no rest for the foreseeable future.