American women's stimulus: voice, agency, change

Ruth Rosen
18 February 2009

Ever since Barack Obama won the presidency, American women - battered by the George W Bush administration's assaults on their rights - have sensed the possibility of change and mobilised to make sure that the new president hear their voices and recognise their needs. Their input into debates on his plan to revivify and transform the United States economy is a key focus of this effort.

No surprise here. During any great political transformation, women have almost always demanded greater equality. In the midst of the American revolution, Abigail Adams famously warned her husband that the new republic must not ignore the needs and rights of half the population. "Remember the Ladies," she wrote to him. "Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation."

Ruth Rosen is a journalist and historian, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, She is a regular contributor to Talking Points Memo. Her most recent book is The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America (Penguin, 2007)

Also by Ruth Rosen in openDemocracy:

"South Dakota, sexual politics, and the American elections" (26 October 2006)

"America's election: Daddy's swagger vs Mommy's care (14 November 2006)Adams understood that women become very angry when liberal change is in the air, but realise they will not be among its beneficiaries. It happened during the French revolution and during the 1960s, for example. It's happening again.

That's why advocates of women's equality quickly mobilised to press the Obama administration to reverse Bush's policies and to make sure he included women in whatever "new" New Deal might be necessary to keep the United States from sliding into the Second Great Depression.

For his part, President Barack Obama has proved that he "gets it", that he understands women's lives and seeks to improve their economic prospects, domestic dilemmas, and reproductive rights. Within the first month of his presidency, for example, he reversed Bush's "global gag rule" on funding contraceptive and reproductive-health services to women across the planet. This will result in many fewer abortions and deaths, and give women much greater control over their lives.

He also signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which reversed a Supreme Court decision that prevented women from suing for equal pay after six months; and he expanded the Children's Health Insurance Programme (which Bush had refused to do), thus setting an important precedent for universal healthcare, at least for children.

But advocates for women workers have felt great anxiety about whether the Obama administration would make sure that women - along with men - would be included in the $787-billion stimulus package that on 17 February 2009 completed its passage through both houses of Congress. It's not that they don't care about male workers; on the contrary, they know that men have been hit harder and more quickly because they work in manufacturing and construction. That leaves many women as breadwinners who cannot support their families on the salaries they earn in the economic sectors they traditionally inhabit.

As early as April 2008, the Senate committee on health, education, labour and pensions (chaired by the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, Edward Kennedy) issued a report entitled "Taking a Toll: The Effects of Recession on Women"; this argued for a safety-net for women, who usually have fewer assets, earn less than men, work in more part-time jobs, and increasing cannot provide for their families.

In the summer, Gwen Moore - the Democratic congresswoman from Wisconsin, who once received welfare as a single mother - teamed up with other like-minded women to reframe the stimulus package by trying to persuade the Democratic National Convention that poverty is a women's issue and that a forthcoming Obama administration must expand the safety-net that vanished when former President Clinton eliminated "welfare as we know it" in 1996.

A raised voice

Alongside these initiatives, concerns about whether the recovery plan would help single women workers and working mothers surfaced repeatedly during the last few months. Feminist economists voiced public concerns that the new administration’s “shovel ready” recovery plan focused too exclusively on male jobs. In a widely quoted op-ed, author and former philosophy professor Linda Hirshman asked: “Where are the jobs for women in the stimulus planning?” (see “Where Are the New Jobs for Women?”, New York Times, 9 December 2008).

There is no doubt that women could be quickly trained for such construction projects, as occurred during the second world war. But would Congress fund this?

Remembering the gender and racial discrimination that characterised the New Deal, 1,200 women historians and economists (including myself) urged President Obama not to repeat FDR's mistakes of directing most jobs to white men. Their petition asked the president to require affirmative action for all federal contractors, and to set aside apprenticeship and training programmes in infrastructure projects for women and people of colour. They also argued that more money should be spent on projects for health, childcare, education and the social services, the economic sectors where women traditionally work.

The voices of women insisting upon such equality in the recovery plan have been loud and insistent, even though the establishment media have tended to ignore them. Leaders of national women's groups were quick in grabbing a seat at the table of Obama's transition team and lobbied hard for the stimulus legislation to include women workers as part of the recovery plan. Blogs and essays written by women have ricocheted through cyberspace, urging Congress to include women and minority workers, along with white men, in the stimulus package.

And what was the result? It depends on how you view the entire stimulus plan. Many well known economists have argued that the recovery plan needed to be much larger. More than one-third of the funds, moreover, went to tax cuts, which will provide less of a stimulus than spending. As a result, women and other low-wage earners didn't get nearly enough jobs.

The back-story is that President Obama has been held hostage by troglodyte Republicans who still believe that a dismantled federal government, a free and unregulated market, and tax cuts for the wealthy are the solution to America's economic collapse. Using the tactic and rhetoric of "bipartisanship", the new president chose to make serious compromises in order to secure sufficient votes from these Senate Republicans. For all his efforts, he received almost no Republican votes.

When Republicans fumed about money to fund comprehensive contraception, for example, Obama and other Democrats decided to strip it from the bill to secure necessary Republican support. (Conservative Republicans not only oppose abortion; their war against contraception has been vehement and persistent.) Most reproductive-rights activists, however, are confident that Obama will quickly insert it in another piece of legislation.

Republicans also cut programmes that disproportionately target women and children, including Head Start for low-income children, Violence Against Women, school improvement and food stamps and aid to states, all of which stimulate the economy by supporting the "social" infrastructure, not only the physical infrastructure. The irony is, as Mimi Abramovitz writes: "Contrary to popular wisdom, spending on services like health care and education produces a bigger bang for the economic-stimulus buck than billions of dollars devoted to roads and bridges. Japan's Institute for Local Government, a nonprofit research group, says that Japan learned this truth the hard way."

A new momentum
Also in openDemocracy on Barack Obama's presidency:

Simon Maxwell, "Global development: Barack Obama's agenda" (20 January 2009)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

, "Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (19-23 January 2009) - reflections from thirty-seven of our worldwide authors

Simon Critchley, "Barack Obama and the American void" (22 January 2009)

Godfrey Hodgson, "Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis" (6 February 2009)
Still, women's persistent lobbying and advocacy produced some very positive results The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a non-partisan research group, concluded: "The provisions providing relief to low- and moderate-income families and to states facing serious budget shortfalls are among the most effective economic stimulus in the package. Low-income and unemployed families will spend benefits or tax refunds quickly to meet household expenses."

In their report "*How the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Addresses Women's Needs," The National Women's Law Center (NWLC) offered a similarly positive assessment: "The Obama Administration and House and Senate leaders have developed a strong plan for economic recovery to preserve and create jobs, help people through tough times, protect vital public services, and invest in our nation's future."

The NWLC cited a host of measures - funds for childcare and early education, expanded unemployment insurance for low-income workers, child support, healthcare, direct assistance for low-income households, education and job training, job opportunities for women, tax benefits for those who really need such relief - to argue that "the Conference Agreement on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes a number of measures that are especially important for women and their families."

All true. But let's get some perspective. The legislation only funded $2 billion for childcare, even as the United States spent $52 billion on nuclear weapons and weapons-related research in 2008 alone. Mass transit and major infrastructure projects, moreover, were shelved to increase tax cuts, in a nearly futile effort to appease Republicans.

It's quite clear that Republicans would rather let the ship go down than help Obama succeed, even though the stakes are so very high for all workers. The Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman warns: "Let's not mince words: This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression" (see "Fighting Off Depression", New York Times, 4 January 2009). So far, his (cautious) predictions about the American economy, since at least 2004, have turned into the very reality he hoped might be averted.

In this political climate, women remain pawns in the struggle between the two parties. Nevertheless, hope remains alive because advocates for gender equality know they have a president on their side. Asked whether the Obama administration was friendlier to women's advocacy groups than the last administration, Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), laughed and replied: "Are you kidding? The difference is like night and day."

Women leaders, scholars and activists are not going away. Once mobilised, they intend to remain visible and vociferous, reminding legislators that they are not "a special interest-group", as both parties tend to view them, but half of the nation's citizens.

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