Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Rara Avis VI: George and the Girls

Another Rara Avis, I'm afraid. This time I have dared to raise my gaze upwards, far far into the upper stratospheres. There, in his solitary royal thoughts, flies the King Of All Birds, the most powerful bird of all. The bird that we have raised above the rest, the one who is to protect the free world and the free markets. It's almost a sacrilege to view him as a mere avian among many, and perhaps even greater sacrilege to ask what this great solemn leader with so many real cares on his weary wings might think about women. But that's my topic for today.:

The International Women's Day was a good time to meditate on George Walker Bush and women. Not that there's much in this exercize for us prurient minds. George is either very good or very careful, or his minders even more so. Instead, I'm going to look at his attitudes towards women more generally, as human beings, as the objects of his policies and as voters.

To find out about these attitudes, it's necessary to examine not only what George has achieved in his four-year realm, but also what he has tried to achieve. Not all his brilliant goals have been met. Yet. That's why he wants another four years.

It's easy to decide that George has done very well indeed abroad. One of his very first acts as a president was the reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule: no U.S. funding will be given to health care providers in developing countries who as much as whisper about the rumors that abortions are available somewhere. Providers could then decide between receiving American money for things such as condoms or counseling and screening for STDs and HIV/AIDS, and having the freedom to include the abortion as an option in their reproductive counseling. Many opted for the latter.

The Christian right is very pleased with this policy and its international success, especially as they have been less successful in their domestic efforts to illegalize abortion and to demonize birth control as well. Though it's early days still, and the next four years of George would most likely see a spread of these policies at home, too. The effects are hard to predict or measure, but many argue that these international policies have caused an increase in both abortions and maternal mortality rates:

What is known as the "global gag rule" is having a devastating impact on women and families in the developing world. Without U.S. assistance, health clinics have closed in Nepal, Zambia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. The loss of USAID funding has forced others around the world to cut staff and services, including for HIV screening, voluntary counseling and education. At a time when the spread of HIV-AIDS has dramatically elevated the demand for condoms, USAID has stopped shipment of condoms to 16 countries because the sole recipients – local family planning organizations – have refused to sign on to the gag rule.

George's second foreign success must be the canceling of $34 million in funding to the United Nation's Family Planning Fund (UNFPA). This fund provides hundreds of thousands of women in 140 countries with family planning and maternal health programs. But the Bush administration decided that UNFPA had been engaging in coercive abortions in China, and the funds were cut. Four fact-finding missions and Colin Powell failed to find evidence for such Chinese coercion. But we all know that faith is stronger than facts.

I see George's third international success in the way he has shifted the U.S. diplomatic voice from the chorus of demons preaching for birth control and female empowerment to the higher registry of the angels singing for God and the religious traditions. No longer is the U.S. supporting "the right of couples and individuals to determine freely the number and spacing of their children and to have the information and means to do so." No longer is the U.S. supporting "reproductive health services and education" for teenagers, and no longer is the U.S. affirming the Beijing platform of gender equality, as somewhere within these there must lurk the devil of abortion. We now vote in bloc with Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia on most matters pertaining to women.

These are the real, intended successes of George's policy in regard to women, and they should be used as the main criteria in judging how well he is doing, especially by those women who have a vote in the United States. But many women are too lenient: recently, a group of women's organizations in the U.S. rated the Bush administration on its foreign policy with respect to women, and this rating didn't even mention the great intended successes. Instead, they focused on several policies which had nothing to do with women's affairs in their initial intentions: the liberation of Afghanistan, the occupation of Iraq and the AIDS crisis in Africa.

Keep in mind that George believed the Taliban to be a rock band only four years ago. That the war in Afghanistan destroyed the Taliban, at least temporarily, was a nice bonus of the campaign but not what we went to war for. The women's lot under the Taliban didn't perhaps look that unsuitable to some in George's base, and in any case the world was fully aware of the situation for several years, yet nothing was being done. No, I can't assign George any credit for wanting to liberate the Afghani women, and the lot of Iraqi women looks more precarious now than it did under the Saddam regime, as cruel as that was. The AIDS funding would help women as it would help men, too, if only the funding was forthcoming.

These women's organizations were wussy, I think, in handling George with kid gloves. Even so, he rated two "Ds" and one "Incomplete" in their final evaluation. Then again, you might argue that "Ds" from lefty women's organizations equal "As" from George's religious base. Maybe he's on the Dean's list, after all.

George's domestic successes are far fewer. True, he managed to close down the White House Office for Women's Initiatives and Outreach and he also ended the Labor Departmen't "Equal Pay Matters" iniative. Equal pay doesn't matter anymore, you see, because women are choosing to have less pay quite freely, and to have an office for women's initiatives and outreach would give women 'special rights'. He filled 26% of the vacant positions in government with female appointees, a respectable drop from Clinton's 37%, but he failed in his attempt to close the regional offices of the Women's Bureau in the Department of Labor.

His new budget will do away with programs that advocate gender equality in education. and John Ashcroft has been an excellent hitman in the area of Civil Rights enforcement, gradually turning it into the area of Special Rights Abatement. As an example:

when the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the Federal Communications Commission's equal employment opportunity rules—which, according to the Washington Post, represented "the most inoffensive corner of affirmative action," because they only required broadcasters to make an effort to inform women and minorities about job openings and encourage them to apply—Ashcroft's department filed a brief urging the Supreme Court not to review that regressive decision

George failed in his first attempt to do away with the 'special rights' that Title IX in education gives female athletes, but this was only the first battle of the war, and he has since regathered his troops to attack from a different angle: that of reintroducing gender segregation into the public schools without worrying too much about whether 'separate' can ever mean 'equal'. This may not hurt girls, of course, but if it doesn't it's quite likely to hurt boys. Given George's attitudes (as reflected in his other policies), I'd bet for the hurting of the girls here.

Actually, I can do better than just try to surmise George's attitudes from his policies. I can quote Condie Rice as his spokeswoman on this International Women's Day:

As President Bush has said, "No society can succeed and prosper while denying basic rights and opportunities to the women of their country."

Women should not be denied basic rights and opportunities, ok. But what about equal rights and opportunities? Here's Ari Fleischer, another spokesman for George:

At a recent press conference, George W. Bush indicated through White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer that he does not consider discrimination against women to be an offense as serious as racial or ethnic discrimination. According to Fleischer, membership in a group that excludes women is not "a disqualifying factor" for candidates to Cabinet posts. However, when prodded, Fleischer stated that racial or ethnic discrimination is a "very different category for the President."Sources: PR Newswire, "Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer," Dec. 11, 2002; Federal Document Clearing House, "Ari Fleischer Holds White House Briefing," Dec. 9, 2002

All is clear now. I think George doesn't believe that women's issues are as serious as racial or ethnic issues, and though women should be provided some basic rights and opportunities, it is not necessary to worry one's head too much over equality. If God had wanted equality of the sexes, He would have told George about it, I presume. You know, when He told him to attack Iraq and stuff.

I think that I can place George now. He's in the same category of birds as the late Ayatollah Khomeini, who appointed his daughter to run all women's affairs in Iran. Given this, it's interesting whom George selected as the representatives of the United States in this week's UN conference about gender equality:

President Bush's sister and Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter will be delegates to a U.N. women's conference next week aimed at promoting equality of the sexes, a U.S. official said.
More than a dozen ministers are expected at the annual meeting of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, which starts Monday, but the presence of Dorothy "Doro" Bush Koch and Liz Cheney in the U.S. delegation is likely to give the gathering a higher profile.
Koch, the president's youngest sibling and only sister, has recently been campaigning for his re-election. Cheney, a lawyer and deputy assistant secretary of state who focuses on Mideast issues, joined her parents last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and Italy.
"These women leaders represent the best in America and are asked to serve as public delegates to this important U.N. conference," Richard Grenell, a spokesman for U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte, said Friday

This was an easy one!

Now I know what George thinks about the girls. What do the girls think about George? Most women I have asked this question give me unprintable answers, but clearly there were many who voted for George in the first place, and there must be some who still like him. Or maybe not. All through writing this, I had that silly old nursery rhyme jingling in my head, and I think it's trying to tell something about George and the voting girls:

Georgie, Porgie, pudding and pie;
Kissed the girls and made them cry...

Don't let him make you cry again!