What Obama Should Do for Women


BOSTON, Nov 13 -- Women's right activists see an open door to the White House of President-elect Barack Obama, and they plan to walk right in and take a seat.

"This is the time to finish the unfinished revolution," said Byllye Avery, founder of the Black Women's Health Imperative.

Women activists have a long list of recommendations for Obama, who is viewed as much more receptive to women's rights than his predecessor.

"It's a great opportunity to think about policies that will strengthen our agenda, like strengthening families," said Andrea Batista-Schlesinger, of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy.

George W. Bush, who leaves office Jan. 20, has imposed many policies that harm the quality of life of women inside and outside of the United States, policies he has said are morally correct and that reflect his personal religious beliefs.

"For eight years, we have suffered under the yoke of an administration that has suppressed science to the detriment of health and has done damage to constitutional and human rights values. Decades of hard-won progress have been eroded," said Nancy Northrup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, in a letter to Obama, sent the day after he was elected.

Bush has stripped funding for hundreds of health clinics worldwide, restricted sex education and birth control to young women, provided government money to religious fundamentalist organizations for moral teachings on sexual abstinence, and nearly halted scientific research that involves reproducing human cells that are four days old, called embryos.

"We ask that you work toward a nation and world in which all women are free to decide whether and when to have children, where all women have access to quality reproductive health care, where all women can exercise their choices without coercion or discrimination, and where all women can participate with full dignity as equal members of society," Northrup said.

Obama aides have already said that on his first day in office, the new president will allow scientists to use federal funds for embryonic stem cell research, and that he will repeal what is known worldwide as the "global gag rule". This Bush rule prevents any health clinic worldwide from discussing or administering abortions if the clinic receives any USAID funds.

Poor nations rely on the funds to provide health care to women, and the gag rule, imposed by Bush on his first day of office in 2001, has proved anything but healthy, says the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Unsafe abortion is the cause of 55 percent of the deaths of women in Ethiopia, due to a lack of health clinics that can provide abortions, according to the Center.

"There's a lot that the president can do using his executive authority without waiting for congressional action, and I think we'll see the president do that to try to restore a sense that the country is working on behalf of the common good," said aide John Podesta, speaking to Fox television recently.

From women's reproductive health care worldwide, to birth control and education, to support for child care and equal pay, women activists from all corners of the U.S. are ready to speak with Obama about what they believe needs to happen.

The National Organization for Women, the largest feminist group in the U.S., is making it easy for women to contact Obama directly, through its website.

"Now is not the time to sit back and relax. President-elect Obama asks 'Where should we start together?' Speak out and tell him!" says the NOW website, which lists equal pay and expanded programs for poor women among possible recommendations for Obama.

Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, spoke to women gathered at historic Seneca Falls, New York, and urged them to "think big" about what they would like to see happen in the next four years.

At a "feminist town hall forum", organized by the Center for New Words in Boston, women all across the U.S. did just that, after hearing from a panel of women's rights advocates.

"Think ahead four years from now. How will we know that we were successful?" asked Paula Rayman, an economist at the University of Massachusetts.

Obama's health reform plan must include access to abortion, and complete reproductive health care, said Loretta Ross, a coordinator of SisterSong, a health collective of women of color.

"Obama, I assume, has not heard the perspective of black women on this issue. That won't fly," Ross said. "Barack needs to know that when you sell out abortion rights, you sell out women. We need to say, 'The middle ground does not start on my body,"' Ross said.

While progressive women are celebrating the possibilities of the next four years, those on the far right are sharpening their agendas as well.

"The potential swing of the Supreme Court to the liberal side is something we need to be very, very aware of. We need to be careful who we let through on these courts," said Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, at a gathering of conservative women in Washington, DC.

"Democrats are going to try to ram through these policies. We need to make sure we are advocating and our voices are heard. Look at the immigration bill and how talk radio was responsible for undermining that and making sure it did not become the law of the land," added Kate Obenshain, a Republican Party strategist.

The Catholic leadership wasted no time in vowing to fight abortion rights and funding of stem cell research. Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, denounced the policies as against the common good, at a meeting of U.S bishops earlier this week.

Clear battle lines are being drawn on both sides.

"We should deal the far right wing a major blow," Smeal said. "We have to make the best use of the next year or two. We must not go back again, so this is our opportunity to move ahead."

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