Will Women Fight Back?

Republicans trying to gut four decades of women’s progress have met with very little resistance — but that’s changing
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  March 2, 2011


Ominous headlines are dominating the news: revolution in the Middle East; surging gas prices; even a possible government shutdown.

Getting less attention, but with equally dire implications, is the concerted war against women being waged by Republicans.

In Washington, and in state houses where they have gained power, Republicans are hell-bent on erasing a generation of gains made by women.

This GOP effort, if successful, would:

* Redefine rape to make it more difficult for victims to get justice;
* Slash health-care funding;
* Further restrict access to family planning and birth control;
* Lower pay and benefits in predominantly female professions.

This is all part of a broader campaign. Republicans elected in November's wave election have been in office less than two months, and already they have tipped their hand: rather than focusing on jobs and the economy, they are using this opportunity to push a wide-ranging ideological agenda, including union-busting, demolition of gun-control measures, freeing corporations to destroy the environment, and elimination of cultural funding such as the National Endowment for the Arts.

But most of all, the Republican ideology targets women.

New Republican majorities are pushing "policies that really, really harm women," says Terri O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). That includes "efforts to criminalize a range of health care" and "threats to women's livelihood."

GOPers are bringing back policy ideas thought to have been buried long ago, and thinking up entirely new ways to roll back progress.

"The whole thing is mean-spirited," says Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine. "They're trying to send women back to a distant era, when women had less ability to move forward and were less independent."

"It's almost like it's coming from all sides," says Kim Driscoll, mayor of Salem. "It's a real concern. We ought to be standing up about it, and shouting from the rooftops."

Yet women — particularly young, progressive women — have been slow to take up arms against the assault.

That was evident just last week, when Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor spoke at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, in Cambridge. A few hundred protesters showed up to condemn GOP cuts. But, judging by signage and chanting, only a handful were protesting the draconian, and unprecedented, eradication of funding for Planned Parenthood and other so-called Title X family-planning service providers. Far more were protesting cuts to AmeriCorps and to global health programs combating HIV/AIDS.

Not that those aren't worthy programs. But the imbalance was a literal demonstration of what women's advocates fear — that their warning cries are being drowned out among all the interests fighting against the conservative tide.

But now, they are beginning to fight back. It is no coincidence that the phrase "war on women" has started turning up everywhere in the past week — in a moveon.org e-mail to its members, as a Twitter hashtag, as the headline of a New York Times editorial, in a speech by New York senator Chuck Schumer, and in a Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Heads of women's groups promise that's only the beginning. "Complacency has been our problem," says Siobhan "Sam" Bennett, CEO and president of Women's Campaign Forum. "I think the time is ripe for us to become more militant about this, and far less politic."

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