National women’s rights advocacy groups are using their newfound political clout with the Obama administration to shape the $825 billion economic stimulus package.
In late 2008, when the debate over the stimulus bill was in full swing, many feminists feared that the package would shortchange women by focusing job creation on the male-dominated construction industry. Feminist author and activist Linda Hirshman was among the first to wave a red flag in an influential New York Times op-ed. “Women represent almost half the work force — not exactly a marginal special interest group,” Hirshman wrote. “By adding a program for jobs in libraries, schools and children’s programs, the new administration can create jobs for them, too.”
Meanwhile several national women’s groups began a quiet but concerted pressure campaign on Obama and members of Congress to keep women’s economic security on the stimulus agenda.
In the bill, which passed in the house Wednesday, feminist organizations appear to have gotten much of what they wanted, including notably sizable investments in health care, education, and job training as well as billions of dollars to stabilize state budgets. For example, the bill includes $88 billion for Medicaid and $79 billion to help states continue to provide public services, according to an analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. An estimated $150 billion is allocated for various educational programs from kindergarten to post-graduate education, the New York Times reported, Wednesday. These big ticket expenditures are expected to create or sustain significant numbers of jobs in female-dominated sectors of the economy, like teaching, nursing, and social work. More broadly, these figures may be an indication that feminist groups have more political clout and access with the Obama administration than they did under President Bush.
As the stimulus began to take shape, women’s groups moved quickly to cash in political capital they earned during the 2008 election. Last year, women’s organizations threw themselves into Democratic politics with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. The National Organization for Women, the largest organization of feminist activists in the United States took the unusual step of endorsing Obama for president. NOW’s main political action committee spent $239,364 to elect Democrats to Congress in 2008, compared to just $38,419 in 2004.
Planned Parenthood’s endorsement of Obama was only the second presidential endorsement in the group’s 93-year history, the first being John Kerry in 2004.
The main Planned Parenthood-allied PAC spent $556,870 on Congressional races in 2008, with 98 percent of the money going to Democrats. Other feminist groups like EMILY’S List and the National Abortion Rights Action League also rolled up their sleeves and backed the Obama ticket. As a result, Obama came to power in the debt of feminist groups for helping him get elected and expanding Democratic majority in Congress, which will be key to passing his ambitious agenda.
From Planned Parenthood’s perspective, that investment appears to have paid off, not only in the form of a pro-choice president, but also in terms of access to power.
“It’s hard to overstate the difference from having a government where there literally was no conversation to have a government reaching out on on a whole range of issues,” said Laurie Rubiner, Planned Parenthood’s vice president for public policy.
So, what’s in the package for women? “Expanding health for them, childcare, unemployment insurance, direct help in higher food stamps, and energy assistance,” said Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic stability at the National Women’s Law Center, a non-profit, nonpartisan advocacy group that has worked closely with the Obama transition team and key members of Congress. “It also protects a lot of jobs for women in education, early education, and social work services,” she added.
“You don’t get everything you ask for,” said Entmacher, “[But] we’re pleased with the funding specifically targeted to childcare and Head Start and other investment for children with disabilities.”
Other feminist leaders are also guardedly positive about the stimulus.
“We’re pretty happy with what we’re seeing so far,” said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, “But we’re waiting to see details.”
Asked whether the Obama administration was more friendly to feminist advocacy groups than the last administration, Gandy laughed and replied, “Are you kidding? The difference is like night and day.”
Gandy says that NOW and other women’s groups have met with Obama’s economic policy director Jason Furman and his senior aides to discuss the needs of women in the stimulus. NOW even set up a special page on its website to document their interactions with the transition team.
Having won a seat at the table, Gandy said her organization made the case for “investing in social infrastructure, like education and health.” Gandy is gratified to see a “very, very sizable investment in education,” including money set aside to train nurses and other health care professionals.
However, feminist leaders also agree that whether the stimulus package is fair to women will depend in large part on how the program is implemented. The current stimulus package includes a $79 billion Fiscal Stabilization Fund to help cash-strapped states maintain their current public services in the face of massive revenue shortfalls and increased demands on social welfare programs. Over half of the stabilization money, $39 billion, will go directly to educational institutions through existing federal formulas, according the latest summary of the bill posted on the House Appropriations Committee website; but over $25 billion is to be used for “flexible fiscal relief,” meaning that the states would have broad discretion over how to spend the money.
There will be some structural safeguards. “States won’t be able to just say we’re going to pour concrete across the entire state,” Entmacher says. But states will still have to make tough choices that will dramatically effect how women fare under the stimulus. Will governors go along with powerful local construction interests and spend money building new schools and libraries, or will they use the money to hire more teachers and librarians?
“If there’s any life in the feminist movement, every chapter of NOW would be writing to the governor,” says feminist writer Linda Hirshman.
NOW president Kim Gandy says that state and local chapters will make their voices heard. “NOW is primarily a grassroots organization,” Gandy says, “Our national operation is small compared to our state and local chapters.” She expects that local NOW chapters will start pressuring state and local politicians as soon as the plan is finalized.
The access to the new president and his top advisers feminist groups have enjoyed so far is a change from the last eight years, but only time will tell the extent of their influence. The relationship between the Obama administration and feminist groups is sure to be tested in the days ahead as the fight over the details of the stimulus heats up.
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