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Both Major Candidates Are Ignoring Women's Issues

November 03, 2000|AMY RICHARDS | Amy Richards is co-author, with Jennifer Baumgardner, of "Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000)

If we believe public opinion polls--which some people must because a new one is released about as often as someone purchases a new Barbie doll (every minute)--at least half of the women in this country describe themselves as feminists. This is more women than describe themselves as either Republican or Democrat. So I have to ask: How is it that both major candidates get away with failing to make feminist issues a priority?

The Republicans recognize us only in opposition, and the Democrats take our votes for granted. For example, George W. Bush is anti-abortion and Al Gore is pro-choice, but neither candidate has made abortion a focus of their campaigns. Gore initially had the edge with pro-choicers who rallied around a "save the Supreme Court" mantra, but that got drowned out by people like filmmaker Michael Moore, who pointed out that the two members of the court who have been holding their fingers in the legal dam on women's reproductive rights in the last several years--David Souter and Sandra Day O'Connor--were appointed by former presidents Bush and Reagan, respectively.

Sure, we're hearing about prescription drug coverage, education reform, family values--all, arguably, issues that affect women in greater numbers than men--but none of these are being talked about from a gender perspective. As for the abortion issue, Bush has been allowed to get away with soft-pedaling his party's support of a "human life amendment" to the Constitution, which would end legal abortion in virtually every circumstance, including rape and to save the life of the woman. Meanwhile, the momentum that Gore built during the Democratic primary to prove that he was more pro-choice than his then-opponent Bill Bradley has evaporated. In its place is a passive acceptance among feminists that surely Gore will protect a woman's right to choose better than Bush.

Why haven't we feminists--and by that I mean anyone who supports full social, political and economic equality of all people, whether they actually call themselves feminists--presented ourselves as a fierce, committed constituency?

About the time I was learning to walk, pollsters began to recognize a gender gap--the voting phenomenon that describes the disparate political alliances of men and women. By the 1980s, women were more likely to vote for the pro-woman--or at least the pro-choice--candidate, and so women's power to influence an election caught the attention of the media and in turn the candidates. But we have not done a good enough job of making ourselves unavoidable as a political force.

As a committed feminist, the one thing I don't compromise on when I vote is my feminism, which is why I occasionally cross party lines. I rarely agree with everything that a presidential candidate is endorsing, but I agree to disagree and to let him (not yet her) know when I disagree. For example, although I am unhappy with Gore over gun control--because though he supports it, he doesn't endorse a total ban on guns--I understand that my expectations may be unrealistic. This doesn't mean that I shouldn't spend time making a case for a total ban. Nor does it relieve me of the responsibility to acknowledge that, if we feminists voted together in favor of a total ban, it would no longer seem unrealistic.

Because many feminists--and other self-respecting women and men--think and vote as I do, it's all the more important that the candidates go beyond the party line and examine how they would improve the lives of women--which, by the way, would have the effect of improving almost everyone's lives because women remain the majority of caregivers in this country.

Instead, the politicians leave it to us to guess. We can no longer wait for them to tell us what they are going to do. If we want to hold onto the gains toward women's equality, and if we are to keep moving toward the goal of full equality, we must figure out for ourselves how to prompt change through our own party politics.

For myself, I have no doubt that in this election, Gore would be "the feminist party" candidate because I have analyzed the issues from a woman's perspective. For instance, when Gore and Bush talk about prescription drug coverage for elderly people on Medicare, they are, by default, talking primarily about older women, because these women are the majority of Medicare recipients. And, according to the Economist magazine, only 3.8 million people would be covered under Bush's plan, whereas Gore's plan would cover 11.7 million people. The majority of the 7.9 million people who would be left out of this coverage if Bush is elected are elderly women. Gore clearly helps more women than Bush does. And so on down the issues.

In lieu of having a feminist party, with its own party convention, platform and candidate, we feminists must align ourselves with the candidates who most clearly reflect our politics. If we want our reproductive rights protected; if we want real welfare and affirmative action; if we want Medicare and Social Security systems that speak to our needs, our votes must show it.

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