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'W' Is Not for Women

An insidious ad campaign tries to dress Bush and his policies in female-friendly clothing. It's not pretty.
 
 
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Save yourself the price of the movie ticket. If you want to see Stepford Wives in action, watch the Bushwomen campaign for W. They did it in 2000; now they're at it again. Bush's female relatives, cabinet secretaries and members of his inner circle are stumping for their man on the slogan, "W Stands for Women."

The folks at Bush/Cheney '04 hope the charm offensive will seduce uncommitted female voters but it will only work if those voters live in Stepford -- or some other place equally divorced from the facts.

"Today 50 million more men and women and children live in freedom," the First Lady, Laura Bush told a rally in Philadelphia this month. Head honcha in the W Stands for Women effort, Bush's wife is appearing in pop-up ads too, touting the President's education policy on websites like Ladies' Home Journal and www.allrecipescom. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, (who takes every opportunity to remind folks that she is the first Asian American woman cabinet secretary,) has also been in the swing states, extolling the President's tax cuts in meetings with female business execs: "When President Bush speaks about the talent, the vision and the strength of working women, he speaks from the heart," Secretary Chao told one crowd last month.

It has always been this way. More than any previous Republican president, Bush has tried to dress himself and his policies up in female-friendly clothing. He has to, for political reasons. For a quarter of a century, female voters have favored Democrats (women favored Gore over Bush by 11 percent.) "W is for Women" was a popular slogan at the Republican National Convention in 2000. First Lady Laura regaled the crowd with talk about her husband as the good father who read to his daughters from Dr. Seuss's Hop on Pop. On coming into office, W earned media plaudits for appointing women to his cabinet (Time called his cabinet choices "a symphony of diversity"). His policy initiatives came family-styled, with names like "The Family Time Flexibility Act" and "No Child Left Behind." To judge by the Bushes' rhetoric, the bombing of Afghanistan was all about liberating women and in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, Bush made a point to mention Saddam Hussein's evil "rape rooms."

By all appearances, the Bush crew are hoping for a repeat. Feigning feminism didn't win W the women's vote in 2000, but it certainly helped muddy the public's understanding of where the candidate stood. (Few outside the Christian Right knew what "compassionate conservative" meant.) Speaking in Pennsylvania, a state that swung narrowly to Gore in the last election, Laura Bush reverted almost verbatim to her 2000 Republican National Convention speech about Bush and "Hop on Pop." ("The girls would act out the story and jump up and down on him," said Bush.) Talking to target suburban soccer moms the First Lady returned once more to the 2000 theme of character: Her husband is someone who treats every person with dignity and respect -- the same dignity and respect he shows the office of the President. "I tell people what his real heart is like, what his character is like," she said. (The Bush crew couldn't run against the Clinton/Gore legacy on economics and money; they ran on "morality" and Monica instead.)

The release of Bill Clinton's memoir may give this effort to re-run the 2000 race a temporary lift. But by rights the "W Stands for Women" effort shouldn't stand a chance. Pandering to anti-tax extremists and religious zealots at home, Bush's policies have left the most vulnerable Americans with more limited, not expanded choices. Bush's cabinet secretaries turned out to be media decoys. Each trailed a long conservative resume, betraying the very causes -- affirmative action, women's rights, civil rights -- which had helped them get ahead. The "flexibility" in the "Flexibility Act" turned out to be all the employers' -- to pay overtime, as has been required for over seventy years -- or, to "offer" time off instead (at the employer's convenience). W's "Leave no Child Behind" actually left millions of children behind when the law imposed new mandates on state school systems, but his budget failed to cover the cost. And the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, ostensibly created to protect innocents like Laci Peterson's unborn child, grants legal recognition to fetuses and embryoes as "persons" -- another chink in the ever-eroding wall protecting women's right to choice. Meanwhile, family planning and maternal and child health care programs have been cut further and further over the past four years.

As Chao entertained female business executives last month, the cover story on Business Week was about Americans working for $18,800 or less: 58 percent are female, and they work for poverty wages with few if any benefits. From the welfare office to the war zone, women as a group have fared dismally under Bush. Middle and low income wages have stayed stuck or slumped, women's reproductive rights are under attack. Chao's Labor Department ended the government's Equal Pay Inititiative and repealed a rule to help employees receive paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child. Some 11.9 million low income children were excluded entirely from Bush's tax credits. The Department of Education has reduced enforcement of Title IX and proposed eliminating key programs that promote gender equity in colleges and schools. The Administration supports a policy that prohibits servicewomen from obtaining abortions at overseas military hospitals except in the case of rape, for example -- and even then the service woman must pay for the procedure herself.

For all the talk of fighting terror for "security" and "rights," Bush's wars are fuelling sexism in the name of patriotism and national resistance in many parts of the world. The record has been compiled. (Earlier this year, the National Women's Law Center released a comprehensive report.) All John Kerry has to do is run on it. Thus far, however, while the Bushwomen schmooze key undecided women voters (the largest swing voting block there is) the Kerry campaign has been focusing on veterans. The candidate hasn't focused on the women's vote since the big, April 25th march on Washington (which he didn't attend.) It's a familiar Democratic calculation -- to take women voters for granted -- but it's dangerous. Follow the Bushwomen on the trail and America looks more like Stepford every day.

Laura Flanders is author of 'Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species' and editor of 'The W Effect: Bush's War on Women' just out from the Feminist Press.