Two conditions are fundamental to equal rights for women: opportunities to earn income and control over reproduction. Women have made major gains in both areas during the past 40 years, despite constant opposition. Once again, these gains are threatened.
Measures before Congress and actions under consideration in the states would reduce jobs and health-care services now available to women. As legislators avoid tackling the issues that led to their current fiscal crises, they propose economic measures that hit women harder than men, and bills that threaten reproductive health care. These short-term budget cuts will only bring greater expense in later years.
At every level of government, the work force is being cut back and salaries reduced. These cuts reduce employment opportunities for women, who make up a majority of public service workers such as school teachers, social-welfare workers, and government office staff. Furthermore, the cuts are foolish short-term savings, weakening the institutions that maintain a healthy society where laws are fairly enforced, children are educated, and families are aided in the care of the elderly and infirm.
On the state and local level pension funds are under attack. Employees are facing the anger and taking the punishment, instead of fund managers who made poor decisions and hedge-fund salespeople who profited from bad investments that caused these funds to plunge in value. Millions of women—wage earners and homemaker-dependents of wage earners—now fear economic insecurity in their old age.
The current majority in Congress has launched a renewed attack on women’s reproductive rights, trying once again to take private health-care decisions out of the doctor’s consulting room and into the legislative halls. Bills under consideration would make it virtually impossible for working women to find affordable health insurance that includes coverage for abortion. Other recently introduced bills aim to eliminate all federal funding from Planned Parenthood clinics, even though, under current federal law, those clinics use only private funds for abortion services. These clinics provide basic health services for an estimated 1.85 million low-income women who cannot afford to get those services anywhere else: pap smears, birth control, and screening for cancer and sexually transmitted diseases.
The move in the House of Representatives to repeal the 2009 health-reform law similarly was an attack on recently achieved gains for women. The law strengthens Medicare: extending its solvency, lowering out-of-pocket payments for medications and preventive care, and improving nursing care. Older women, in particular, benefit from these changes, since they outnumber men and are more dependent on Social Security and Medicare. Women of childrearing and working ages also benefit from the law’s extensive reforms of the insurance industry, including a ban on “gender rating,” the insurance company practice of charging women more than men for the same coverage.
The federal debt that is causing so much hand wringing skyrocketed during the past decade. The Bush tax cuts cost an estimated $2.5 trillion during the decade after they were enacted, with 52.2 percent going to the richest 5 percent of Americans. Meanwhile, the military budget almost tripled. The corporate bailouts of 2008 and 2009 compounded the problem just as the recession further reduced tax revenues. Future expenses of Medicare and Medicaid will contribute the most to intractable deficits. The 2009 health-reform law was a small start in making these programs sustainable.
What is needed? An overhaul of the tax system to make it more transparent, just, and cheaper to implement; cutbacks in military spending; and an overhaul of the health-care system with long-range planning to sustain Medicare and Medicaid.
What is being addressed instead? Areas of government spending that most affect women’s work and health, and that account for only a tiny slice of the total federal budget.
Women must continue their organized activity to make sure representatives know and do what is best for their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters. Many of the gains of the past 40 years have been achieved through the work of feminist organizations and feminist women in elected and appointed offices. Sustained effort is needed to preserve and extend the opportunities that a whole generation of women now take for granted.
The Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee has worked effectively for more than 20 years to bring feminist women into public office in Santa Barbara County. Join the Past Presidents’ Circle at lunch on Friday, March 18, to hear keynote speaker Katherine Spillar on Feminism in the 21st Century. Ms. Spillar is one of the founders of the Feminist Majority Foundation and currently serves as its executive vice president, and as executive editor of Ms. Magazine, now owned by the Feminist Majority.
The luncheon is at the Montecito Country Club, 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Reservations can be made at sbwpc.com/news.htm.