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What Kind of Economic Stimulus Do American Women Want?

Advocates of women's equality have mobilized to make sure women are included in the "new" New Deal.

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 mobilized to make sure that the new president hear their voices and recognize their needs.

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."

Adams understood that women become very angry when liberal change is in the air, but realize 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 mobilized 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 Program (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, labor 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?".

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