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Creeping progress for women.

Seventy-five years ago, women in the United States finally won the right to vote, and in the last Presidential election, women cast 54 percent of the ballots. President Clinton, who possesses both a burning desire to be reelected and a grasp of basic math, celebrated the recent anniversary of women's suffrage. He also took the opportunity to endorse the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, which Hillary Rodham Clinton attended after much debate.

If the celebrations had a depressingly muted quality, it's because this is not the most auspicious historical moment for women around the world--or in this country for that matter. In many ways, our national feminist consciousness hasn't improved much since the suffragists faced jeering crowds in Washington early this century.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, who spent the last year making herself over in the image of a nonthreatening homemaker, has responded to conservative attacks on the "radical, anti-family agenda" of the international women's movement by downplaying feminism and emphasizing motherhood and family. The President has been meekly defensive on the subject of women's rights-describing the U.S. delegation to the Beijing conference as "true blue to families."

(The Republicans' professed concern about human rights in China--the reason they originally gave for demanding a U.S. boycott of the international women's conference--is no more credible than their professed concern about families. On both human rights and family policy, the Republicans are about as compassionate as Vlad the Impaler. But their sanctimoniousness knows no bounds.

The more politicians genuflect at the altar of family values, the more it seems that women and children get the shaft. This has been true throughout the history of the women's movement. "Motherhood cannot be amended and we're glad they didn't try," The New York Times wrote in response to a failed drive for equal rights in 1948. Fast forward to 1995. The Wall Street Journal contended that the Beijing conference features "the American quarrel between ardent feminists and equally ardent defenders of family values." Yet feminists continue to be the ones who call for better family policies, parental leave, health care and nutrition for mothers and children, and high-quality, affordable day care--issues that were current in Elizabeth Cady Stanton's time.

Despite American politicians' saccharine sentimentality about family, our elected officials are making fife miserable for mothers and children. The single most anti-women-and-children public policy in the recent history of the United States is Bill Clinton's own pet, "welfare reform." Clinton kicked off the current wave of draconian welfare experiments, and Republicans and Democrats are competing with each other to be the toughest on poor women and children, capping AFDC and food stamps, forcing single mothers into the workforce without making any provision for their children's care, and deepening the cycles of poverty and despair in which millions of women and children find themselves trapped. The Clinton Administration has granted federal waivers to state after state for each of these experiments in cruelty, and the President now seems more eager even than Bob Dole or Phil Gramm to push a punitive welfare bill through Congress.

With the rise of virulent conservatism and the sadly defensive posture of liberals in Washington, it's easy to lose heart. But the growing momentum of the international women's movement, and the passion of its leaders in the Third World, should give women everywhere inspiration and hope.

Women in Africa, India, and Latin America are working to improve health care and education for women and girls--efforts that have helped reduce disease and infant mortality and improve standards of living for women and their families. Grassroots environmental and development initiatives have also improved economic conditions for families and produced a model for sustainable living. Such efforts give the lie to the notion that feminism is "anti-family."

One of the most regressive aspects of the current backlash against feminism in the United States is the recycled idea that women's individual, inalienable rights conflict with spiritual and cultural values. This refusal to accept women as full human beings is fashionable among communitarians, Republicans, and members of the Christian right, who insist that women's rights should take a back seat to family, culture, and tradition.

Mary Ann Glendon, the Harvard law professor who was chosen as the Vatican's delegate to the U.N. conference, is a particularly well-respected proponent of this view, Glendon, a leader of the communitarian movement, promotes "more local control over abortion laws"--an absurd example of letting community standards arbitrarily constrain universal individual rights.

Equally absurd positions were rife among the conservative American delegates in Beijing. Beverly La-Haye, founder and president of Concerned Women for America, criticized the discussion of domestic violence in the Beijing platform. "When the word `family' is referred to in the document, most often it is in the sense of a negative, like when they say that most violence takes place in families," she said. "But the majority of families are a beautiful place to be, and most are safe havens."

This sort of willful ignorance set the tone for what some feminists called the "backlash conference" in Beijing.

In fact, domestic violence continues to be one of the biggest problems women face around the world. In the United States, one in every three women experiences some physical violence in her long-term relationships. That most countries still treat abuse of women as a private matter, instead of an important human-rights issue, compounds women's isolation. Representatives to the Beijing conference insisted that the U.N. recognize the universal rights of women to be free of violence, and that mass rape be finally recognized as a war crime--both steps toward acknowledging the violence against women that has historically been ignored.

Through the combined efforts of the Vatican, conservative Muslim leaders, and the Christian right in the United States, the Beijing conference delegates submitted to a more ambiguous and cautious discussion of abortion rights than in any previous summit. The rights of lesbians were also inadequately addressed, and derisively dismissed by pundits like Cokie Roberts. And women's fundamental individual rights continue to be subordinated to repressive social standards.

But conservative religious leaders and heads of state can't make the women's movement disappear.

The anniversary of suffrage and the international conference in Beijing remind us that the struggle for women's rights is continuous. But neither celebrations nor conferences can take the place of concrete action to oppose the backlash against women at home and abroad.

Newt's Fryathon

Newt Gingrich fashions himself the Grim Reaper Non social programs, and now he's so enamored with the outfit that he wants to wear it to the gallows. In late August, Gingrich came out for mass executions of drug smugglers. This from a small item in The New York Times with the understated headline of the year: "Gingrich Suggests Tough Drug Measure." Just how tough soon became clear: "The first time we execute twenty-seven or thirty or thirty-five people at one time, the price of carrying drugs will have gone up dramatically," Gingrich said.

His idea for a fryathon would certainly bring new distinction to the United States. Why, we'd be the envy of the ancient world.

Gingrich wants to severely limit appeals of death sentences for smuggling. "They'd have one chance to appeal," he says. "They wouldn't have ten years of playing games with the system."

Gingrich's proposal may apply even to individuals who bring in small quantities of drugs for their personal use, and soon he intends to submit his proposal in the form of Congressional legislation. He's doing it for the children, he says. "I have made the decision that I love our children enough that we will kill you" if you bring drugs into the country.

It's got a ring to it, you've got to admit: "Show how much you love your kids: support the death penalty."

Gingrich, by the way, unveiled the new gallows in front of 1,500 people at a cheerleading jamboree in Georgia.

His plan ought to give the squads some new chants to rehearse: Kill 'em Again, Kill 'em Again, Harder, Harder, and Rah, Rah, Sis Boom Bah, Go Reaper!

Chip and Dole

You know Bob Dole, the guy with the giant chip on his shoulder, the guy who shoots from the chip?

Well, this tough guy's not so tough after all. A little pressure from the far right, and he buckles. They don't like affirmative action; now he doesn't like affirmative action. They don't like abortion; now he doesn't like abortion. They don't like gays and lesbians; now he doesn't like gays and lesbians.

After he got egg on his face in Iowa, Dole moved quickly to appease the bigots in the Christian Coalition. Worried that he'd be perceived as sympathetic to gays and lesbians, the Dole campaign returned a $1,000 contribution from the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay and lesbian group.

How any gays and lesbians could be Republican in this day and age is hard to fathom. But what's even more surprising is seeing Dole turn down a dollar, since the guy snorts money like an anteater at a picnic.

The Dole campaign said it had accepted the contribution by mistake, but it turns out the campaign had aggressively solicited contributions from the Log Cabin Republicans in the first place. So then the Dole staff tried to come up with a better excuse. "Our policy," said a spokesperson, "is to decline contributions from political groups that have an agenda that is in opposition to Senator Dole's."

How about Time Warner--one of the companies Dole has accused of "debasing" American culture? Time Warner hasn't given Dole $1,000; it's given Dole $21,000 since 1987, The Washington Post reports. Has the Dole campaign returned a dime? No way. "There's an obvious difference" between Time
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Title Annotation:United Nations Conference on Women; 75th anniversary of U.S. women's suffrage
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Oct 1, 1995
Previous Article:Double Vision: Reflections on My Heritage, Life, and Profession.
Next Article:Common ground.

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