The Silver Lining: Women are Setting a Bold Feminist Agenda at Home and Abroad
The past two years under the Trump Administration have been an all out war on women’s rights. In the midst of scandal and division among his ranks, President Trump has shrewdly fed red meat to his ultraconservative base to keep them loyal, often at the expense of women. As political payback to evangelicals, President Trump has passed the most extreme and expansive global gag rule, sought ways to defund Planned Parenthood, appointed vehemently anti-choice judges and political appointees, and expanded religious and moral exemptions to the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit.
But where there is threat, there can also be opportunity. From the Women’s March to the #MeToo movement to the March for Our Lives, women have mobilized and fueled a resistance to the Trump Administration that has propelled progress and held politicians accountable on a wide range of policies beyond cornerstone “feminist” issues. They have also opened up important dialogues around intersectional approaches to organizing that center marginalized voices. As a result, we now have a more inclusive, more accountable, more enriched women’s movement that is working toward addressing historical shortcomings and embracing the leadership and perspectives of women of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and other critical voices.
The “street power” of women has also translated into tangible policy wins. Women’s rights activists have smartly targeted strategies to advance progress at the state level. As overturning Roe v. Wade became a real and present danger, state legislators have boldly stepped up to protect and defend abortion access. From Oregon to Illinois to New York, we have seen a wave of progressive laws over the past two years to safeguard a woman’s right to choose in state law and to remove barriers to accessing an abortion safely and equitably. Notably, in Oregon, as well as in Illinois under a Republican governor, laws were passed to allow patients enrolled in Medicaid to also have abortion coverage — a key priority for reproductive justice groups who have worked tirelessly to address and raise awareness to the needs of lower income women and women of color.
The political momentum of feminists has not only been isolated to the United States. Across many Catholic-majority countries, we have seen watershed reforms to overturn draconian abortion laws. In Chile, activists organized an impressive grassroots campaign, with the support and leadership of former President Michelle Bachelet, that secured legislative passage of a law to legalize abortion. Ireland had a historic popular referendum that led to an unexpected landslide victory for legal abortion. In Argentina, feminists organized massive demonstrations and led a campaign that secured passage of a law to legalize abortion in their lower house, though it ultimately failed to pass the Senate. In all of these countries, citizens engaged for the first time in critical conversations about the morality and ethics of trusting women with deeply consequential, deeply private matters over their bodies.
Activists also worked doggedly to reach and engage with communities across all segments of society. Interestingly (for those who try to argue abortion is a polarizing issue), the Irish vote was won in a country that is still 78 percent Catholic with widespread support across all demographics — rural and urban voters, old and young, women and men. The media was abuzz before the vote, reminding grandfathers and fathers and brothers that the vote was not simply a “woman’s issue.” The result of the vote underscored how important it is to engage and empower constituencies with facts and to allow open, honest, and broad based dialogue so that voters can truly understand how legislation can affect the lived realities of women and not be lured into false polemics.
There are many lessons learned from the last two years that have made feminist moments globally more resilient and strategic as we move ahead. And thankfully, in the United States, women now have a Congress that looks more like them, speaks more to them, and can advance a feminist agenda at home and abroad.
Our new female leaders in Congress — and their male allies — should seize this moment to advance several key legislative priorities.
First, we must raise awareness to the devastating human impact of the president’s global gag rule, which muzzles organizations receiving U.S. assistance from speaking about abortion, and pass legislation to end this cruel practice once and for all. Let’s be totally clear: A gag rule domestically would be unconstitutional under the first amendment. It has also kept many feminists like myself from ever serving in the foreign service, as I know many women like me who would never serve an administration that upheld such an anti-democratic, anti-woman foreign policy.
Nevertheless, a gag rule has been implemented by every Republican president since Reagan, including under the Trump Administration. However, for the first time ever, it applies to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which means $8.8 billion, or more than 14 times the funding of previous gag rules, is implicated. In Southern Africa where PEPFAR comprises the lion’s share of U.S. development funding, this ultimatum has been a particularly tough pill to swallow for healthcare providers. In rural areas of the region and beyond, healthcare facilities are often one-stop shops for all healthcare services — which means the same clinic that does HIV testing also typically offers cervical cancer screenings, free birth control, and abortion counseling and referral (or sometimes post-abortion care in the case of women who have had an unsafe abortion). Consequently, many of these facilities have lost funding for being unwilling to drop essential abortion referral services, and family planning clinics who refuse to comply with the gag rule are shutting down across the continent, leaving patients without birth control or other essential services. In places like Gaza province in Mozambique where almost a quarter of the population is HIV positive, the number of people tested for the virus has dropped from 6,000 to fewer than 700. This month, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) launched a bipartisan and bicameral reintroduction of the Global Health, Empowerment and Rights (HER) Act to seek to repeal these vicious gag rules forever and to ensure international healthcare providers do not have to sacrifice their services or free speech rights in exchange for U.S. assistance. This common-sense legislation should garner more support from fellow members of Congress.
In addition, we must raise awareness to the deeply cynical and flawed approach of USAID’s restructured economic empowerment programs for women under President Trump. First, our members of Congress should state the obvious: It is unacceptable to negate the lived realities of transgender people by renaming the gender office and assigning a leader to that office who has a known transphobic track record. Every congressional hearing on economic development assistance is an opportunity for our progressive members of Congress to ask about the renaming of this office and what it means for the direction of gender programming. Furthermore, the women’s economic empowerment initiative announced during President Trump’s State of the Union and backed by Ivanka Trump misses the importance of reproductive freedom to economic freedom: You simply cannot lift women out of entrenched cycles of poverty if you do not give them the agency to make their own decisions over when, whether, and how to have children. Simply put, a woman cannot control her household budget, savings, and investments if she does have control over her household size. An administration that has been so actively hostile to women’s sexual and reproductive rights is unlikely to pursue a well-designed approach to unleashing women’s economic potential. Our Congress holds the purse strings and should play an active oversight role over the outcome of these programs.
Lastly, on the domestic front we have a real opportunity to grow the coalition of members willing to repeal the Hyde Amendment. This legislation seeks to control the reproductive rights of women of color and low income women by denying abortion coverage to women who have healthcare insurance under Medicaid. Former Congressman Henry Hyde, for whom the law is named, said himself: “I would certainly like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion, a rich woman, a middle class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the HEW Medicaid bill.” It therefore could not be clearer that those who seek to limit abortion access want to unfairly punish poor women and deny them their constitutional right to choose simply because they can through federal funding. Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) recently reintroduced the Each Woman Act, which would repeal the Hyde Amendment. In a 21st century Congress, surely we have enough members who understand that women with less means are no less deserving of constitutional rights.
Let’s be clear: We may not achieve these legislative objectives under the current administration. But we know women powered the movement that brought new members into Congress and women want them to have their backs. We also know we can volley legislative initiatives and build their base of support so that they can be passed in a future Congress. Most importantly, now is the time to set bold proposals forward that normalize a feminist vision of governing at home and abroad and that can set the standard for the kind of leadership we want and expect in 2020.
Cynthia Romero is a Political Partner with Truman National Security Project, former Obama appointee at USAID, and Director of Communications at Catholics for Choice. Views expressed are her own.