A Revitalized Women’s Movement? Let’s Hope So
I do not think that we humans feel only one emotion at any given time. I am thinking of the March for Women’s Lives this Sunday and I feel elated. Finally, the fight for women’s reproductive rights is coming back out where it belongs: in the streets. But I am also feeling frustrated: why did it take the ban on the dilation and extraction procedure (the so-called "partial birth abortion"), the Bush Administration’s exploitation of Laci Peterson’s horrific murder, and John Ashcroft’s snooping into women’s medical records to galvanize the mainstream feminist leadership? None of this would have happened if a strong movement were in place to stop it. I could just say better late than later and be happy about Sunday if I were not so apprehensive: I know that many liberals at the march will use this important event as a soapbox to get out the vote for John Kerry: Bush-lite.
There is no reason to suspect otherwise since this is an election year and many have already been actively campaigning for Kerry since he tied up the nomination: Women’s Voices, Women’s Vote [WVWV] is a newly founded "project to determine how to increase the share of unmarried women in the electorate and develop a set of messages to motivate their participation." WVWV was founded after pollsters Stanley Greenberg and Celinda Lake discovered an electoral goldmine for Democrats in the single woman demographic; they have a tendency to be politically progressive, yet noticeably absent on Election Day. (1) Wonder why?
Since WVWV was established, scores of liberal writers have been whooping and hollering over the idea of this organization showing us single women the way to the polls so we can elect the Democratic Party’s current Great White Father, John Kerry to the Big White House.
In her Common Dreams article last month, "A Different W: Move Over NASCAR Dads, the Sex and the City Crowd Could Turn the Election…" Martha Burk suggests that in order not to "scare men", the Democrats should be "clever" by appealing "to men at the same time by saying: ‘Just think how much better off every family would be if our daughters, mothers, and spouses were paid what they’re worth.’" (2) So Burke recommends that Kerry asks our fathers, boyfriends, and other males in our lives permission to court us? And why so little faith in the men in our lives and so much faith in these men who make up the Democratic Party establishment?
Katha Pollitt of The Nation does a little bit better. Not only does she point out the absurdity of the "Sex and the City Crowd" labeling of a group who are "disproportionately young, mobile, struggling and/or very, very poor" but she calls for the Democrats to "come up with similar lures for the votes of single women–a federal living wage, universal public preschool and after-school (don’t forget, singles with kids don’t have the luxury of staying home with them), heck, free birth control." (3)
In addition to abortion rights, these are also much needed reforms and a new womens’ movement that encompasses all and more of these concerns. But I just have one question for the writers and feminist leaders who say we should vote for Kerry: do they want conditions for women in America to improve or do they want to get a Bush-lite Democrat into office? Because these two should know by now that not only are these two roads not the same, not only do they not parallel, they do not even exist on the same planet. One only needs to take a look at the troubling history of the Democratic Party and its neglect of women.
In 1980, for the first time, women voters outnumbered male voters, and feminists in the Democratic Party threatened to abandon Jimmy Carter and support Independent Presidential Candidate John Anderson if the Democrats did not take women’s issues seriously. This got choice, ERA, and child care on the on the agenda.(4)
In 1988, after a brutal eight years of Reaganomics in which domestic programs were stripped of billions of dollars, there was a 24 percent gender gap in the pre-election polls in favor of Michael Dukakis.
It was single women, whether unwed, divorced, or widowed, who contributed most dramatically to the gap, along with working, educated, professional, young, and black women….who most supported a feminist agenda of pay equity, social equity, and reproductive rights. (5)
Dukakis intentionally ignored women’s issues, so the gap was reduced to eight points by Election Day. Despite GOP claims that Bush/Quayle had "narrowed the gender gap", the reality was that the Bush/Quayle ticket only received 49 to 50% of the women’s vote.(6) Obviously, many women who felt that both parties were out of touch stayed home.
In his first year in office, Bill Clinton abandoned health care reform. He later went on to dismantled welfare (a horrific blow to many women and children in poverty), and did nothing to try to get the Freedom of Choice Act passed.
For his 2000 bid for the presidency, Al Gore offered nothing more than a few words of lip service to the pro-choice position that he had only adopted in recent years (in 1991, Gore stated that abortion "was the taking of an innocent life") and attacked Bill Bradley in the Democratic primary for calling for Universal Health Care. The millions of Americans who are uninsured are disproportionately women. And even during the Clinton years, abortion providers were not available in the majority of the counties in this country. The reality is this: reproductive freedom will not be available to all women in the United States until we have Universal Health Care.
During the 2000 Presidential Election, many mainstream feminists viciously attacked Ralph Nader for running for President as a Green Party Candidate, despite feminism being one of the party’s key principles. The feminist movement itself was on the receiving end of such invective in the summer of 1989 when NOW delegates who were disgusted with the Democrats proposed an exploratory committee to discuss the possibility of launching a third party that would not only speak to specific women’s issues, but would address militarism, racism, and poverty. After the media, which usually ignored NOW, castigated them for daring to toy with such an idea, feminist leaders publicly distanced themselves from the proposal. (7) NOW briefly considered the idea of forming a third party again in 1992. (8)
What happened to those days when we had standards: when we dreamed? Now, as Bush seeks to corrode the one square foot of ground that we stand tiptoed on, we have a tougher fight because there wasn’t a battle for more when we had two square feet: just a battle in Congress by professional lobbyists to keep what little we had, and if it was chipped away by Democrats we were supposed to look away and pretend that it did not happen. The mainstream feminist leadership became apologists for the rich, white men (the Democrats) who enabled the Republicans to launch these latest assaults on our rights. If the definition of feminism is the end to sexism, then frankly, this mode of thinking is anti-feminist. If I divorced a man because he was taking my money and denying me my basic rights, I cannot see any of these women telling me to marry one of his brothers, yet after eight years of Clinton, that is what the mainstream feminist movement wanted us to do, and they want us to do it now in 2004.
But because of a lack of faith in those who would most benefit from direct involvement, lobbying and voting have taken the place of grassroots political activity. Of course, this election year, there is activity, but its’ aim is to get women to the ballot box. The very demographic that WVWV seeks to reach is the one that is most receptive to progressive ideas and can jump start the womens’ movement, but the movement needs to be democratic, and not top down with a petrified leadership and it needs to extend far beyond electoral politics. Corie Osborn from Radical Cheerleaders DC says it best: "The leading pro-choice organizations have come to resemble hierarchal, bureaucratic corporations. Grassroots activism has been replaced by top-down, American-style democracies in which only a small number of well-educated, well-paid ‘representatives’ are hired to speak on behalf of everyone." (The Radical Cheerleaders are meeting up Sunday morning to march to the march. If you are going to be in DC, get with them http://www.radicalcheer.org/call.htm they look like fun people: another important element of activism).
This march is important, and the mainstream feminist leadership should be praised for calling it. But it will be an insult to women who have been affected most by the abuse of the Republicans and the neglect of the Democrats to use the energy from Sunday’s demonstration to get out the vote for Kerry and abandon activism after Election Day. No matter who wins the election, we must build a strong women’s movement that will fight relentlessly for what we have lost and dare to envision equality for all.
BRANDY BAKER can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
(1) Women’s Voices, Women’s Votes (www.wvwv.org)