(Stephen Crowley/ New York Times)
Its been an odd week in the Obama White House. He started it by started it by ending the Global Gag Rule and ended it by Signing the Lillie Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, otherwise known as the Equal Pay Act. At the same time, President Obama sacrificed over $330 Million dollars in women’s reproductive health funding in order to pass his economic reform plan only to find out that sacrificing women’s reproductive choices still won’t motivate Republicans to look out for low income and unemployed people in need of government assistance.
For the first time in U.S. history, equal pay for equal work is essentially mandatory. Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act into effect on Jan 29, 2008, which allows for anyone who discovers they have received less pay for the same work can sue up to 180 days after each unequal paycheck; essentially this means that you can sue up to 180 days after the last time you are paid. Since women and people of color are the most likely to experience pay differentials based on identity discrimination, the Act is an important step forward in Women’s and Civil Rights. It also sends a clear message to employers that long accepted discrimination in the workplace will not be tolerated under the new administration.
Call me naive, but I actually had this moment this morning when I wondered if I would be able to scrap my 75 cents on the $1 lecture when I teach my courses on women and the global economy in the future. I am so used to standing at the front and breaking down the differentials which have Native American women in this country earning as little as 35 cents to the white male $1 and watching my students’ faces fall. How great will it be to one day share with my students that women, of all races, make equal money to men of all races for the same jobs and the same work?!
This decision goes hand in hand with one of Obama’s earliest Presidential decisions to end the Global Gag Rule by executive order on Jan 21, 2009. Many feminists around the world lamented the Bush administration’s decision to re-enforce the Global Gag Rule at a time when so many women were facing war and genocide related physical and sexual assault and HIV/AIDs was rapidly becoming a pandemic (and during the Bush years heterosexual women became the number one infected population). They also clearly cited how lack of reproductive choice and education (sometimes of any kind whatsoever) has led to a drain on women’s social programs, lowered educational attainment for girls, increased teen pregnancy and domestic and sexual violence, increased spread of certain STDs, increased maternal and child mortality, and increased preventable long term complications like fistulas, as well as structural issues that decrease women’s safety, welfare, and opportunities. While Republicans have been implimenting versions of the Gag Rule since Reagan, Bush’s version was particularly insiduous because it often mandated abstenance only programs at places that offered a full array of women’s health information thus preventing them from discussing safe sex practices and sexual choices as well as reproductive ones.
The Global Gag Rule had lasting negative impact beyond women’s health as well. Not only were countries denied U.S. aid on the basis of offering comprehensive family planning, structural issues such as increased out-migration, drain on state and local funds, and decreased access and quality of basic services. Government instability was even cited in some areas of Africa whose loss of family planning funds dramatically decreased their successful AIDs prevention programs and through their nations into chaos as whole generations were lost and trust in the government dwindled. These are just some of the major issues impacting nations that were unable to secure funding for successful family planning programs, that included discussion of sexual and reproductive health, women’s safety including from domestic and sexual violence, and child rearing and mother-child health courses, all because they also offered information on abortion.
The fact that President Obama considered ending this disparity a top priority inspired many feminists and health advocates alike. When he ended the Gag rule in the first days of his presidency, there was hope that he was going to be the kind of president who recognizes the global impact of women’s equality at all levels. And even as some Republicans and conservative churches marched in the streets against “the killing of babies,” most in Congress agreed that countless numbers of children and their mothers had died already because of the Gag Rule. Regardless of ones reproductive politics, the Gag Rule’s lasting global impact proved it was not the answer.
Unfortunately, when Obama is not acting unilaterally, his commitment to women’s issues seems to waiver. As historiann reported earlier this week, Obama decided to cut $330 million in funding for women’s reproductive health programs in the U.S. In weighing a number of social programs that he could try and trim down to get Republicans on board his economic recovery plan, Obama made the decision to cut women’s health sending a message that directly contradicted the one from earlier this week and making many wonder how expendable we are during times of controversy to the new administration. His decision was based on his promise of bi-partisan governance in which neither part explicitly includes women’s rights (tho obviously women are in both parties).
While some feel the worst part about the cuts is that it did not motivate Republicans to vote for our economic recovery, I think there is a much deeper issue here: the priority Obama placed on fruitless bi-partisanship over the health needs of 1/2 the U.S. population.
This early in the game, it seems fruitless to take any or all of these decisions and determine what kind of president Obama will be for women and women’s rights. There are still 4 more years to go and Obama has shown himself to be actively engaging in discussions about women’s equality as well as pushing forward some of the issues that will support them while neglecting others. Since all of this has unfolded in the first week of his administration, I think the important lesson we can take away from it is that we have to be active members in the dialogue. We cannot sit on the sidelines, commenting on his decisions, but instead must make our needs known and then holding him and the rest of the government accountable for meeting them.
One thing that seems central to this kind of active engagement with the White House, is letting President Obama know that women’s health is not a bargaining chip at the national or the local level. Doing so does not undermine the important steps he has helped this nation take in funding women’s health initiatives globally and in ensuring we get paid equally for our labor.