Among the most
admirable aspects of George W. Bush’s public
persona is his respect for the women who work for him. His ease
with female leadership at the highest levels of his campaign and in
the Oval Office suggests that he is in fact a man of his generation,
however often he denigrates the liberal activism that revived the
movement for sexual equality.
The recent resignation
of Karen Hughes, the most important
woman in his political life, displayed the skills that made her so
valuable to him as the White House communications czarina.
Skepticism was abandoned as the media beatified her (and
indirectly her boss) with an aura of familial loyalty and powerful
sisterhood. One need not doubt Ms. Hughes’ stated concerns
about her family or her yearning for her home state to notice that
symbolism and personality have, as usual, overwhelmed substance
in the gooey tributes to her from the Washington press corps.
Aside from her
rigid control of the meager, saccharine diet of information doled out
to those same admiring journalists, the greatest service Ms. Hughes has performed
for Mr. Bush was to soften the edges of his right-wing agenda. A moderate by
contrast with his other advisers, she was among the chief promoters of
"compassionate conservatism," a theme to which he returned this week. Her very
presence at his side blurred the pious Texan’s attraction to the misogynist and
patriarchal ideology of the religious right, and to advisers such as Marvin Olasky,
who extol the Biblical "submission" of women to their husbands.
For the upper-middle-class
opinion elite that dominates political discourse in the
capital, this bland, unthreatening and very Republican feminism is the only
acceptable version of "identity politics." While serving an obvious political need, and
catering to the career aspirations of a few well-connected women, it does little or
nothing to mitigate policies that injure the female population beyond the Beltway.
the well-publicized power of Ms. Hughes and National Security
Advisor Condoleezza Rice, the Bush administration has eroded rather than
advanced the cause of women in government. Among the first actions taken by Mr.
Bush after his inauguration was to shut down the White House Office for Women’s
Initiatives and Outreach, thus removing the Presidential imprimatur from its mission
of addressing women’s problems in federal agencies. When this backward step was
criticized, the excuse offered by Ms. Hughes’ spokesminions was that the office had
"expired at the end of President Clinton’s term." They promised that its expiration
wouldn’t affect the new administration’s "outreach" on behalf of women.
of that soothing reassurance soon became painfully clear.
Whenever they "reached out," the hands of the White House budget managers were
holding a big ax. They quietly moved to abolish the 10 regional offices of the Dept. of
Labor’s Women’s Bureau, crippling the department’s capacity to enforce female-friendly
laws and regulations (despite the presence of a woman as Labor Secretary).
By the end of
2001, the hopes of Republican feminists had been thoroughly
disappointed. The Brookings Institution’s ongoing study of Presidential appointments
showed last December that only 26 percent of jobs requiring Senate confirmation -
meaning top executive and foreign-service positions —had been awarded to women.
This represented a sharp drop from the Clinton administration, which gave an
unprecedented 46 percent of Senate-confirmed offices to women during its first year.
male appointees in Mr. Bush’s cabinet didn’t hesitate to express
their hostility to reproductive rights and women’s issues. Tommy Thompson, the
conservative zealot who runs the Department of Health and Human Services,
promulgated a new regulation that extends health coverage under the Children’s
Health Insurance Program to fetuses rather than pregnant women. A few weeks
later, budget director Mitch Daniels struck again, this time attempting to eliminate
contraceptive coverage from federal employees’ health-insurance plans.
This year, the
President’s budget proposals would damage the interests of women in
a variety of other ways, cutting away at day care, after-school programs and student
loans. Or perhaps that’s the wrong way to put it, since there are women who benefit
from Bush policies. They happen to be very wealthy women whose incomes were
increased by the tax cut, and very conservative women whose political prominence
is enhanced by association with the White House.
For most American
women, however—whose interests are hardly identical with those
of the Republican right—the Bush record hasn’t been improved by Karen Hughes and
won’t be affected by her departure. Another woman may be named to take her place,
but that would make about as much difference as Karl Rove putting on a dress.
You may reach Joe Conason via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.