Women’s Rights Embattled Throughout Summer

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Prepare to weep and smile. This week, Women’s Enews will host commentaries from brilliant writers on Beijing + Five, U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the war crimes trials at The Hague and the Republican and Democratic national conventions.

Suffragettes campaign for the right to vote

Women’s Enews has declared this summer the Women’s Summer because our basic rights were on the agenda in every major venue: The United Nations, the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, the U.S. Supreme Court, the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention. It was a summer of our victories but still, a summer of our discontents.

And over and over again, those in power discussed, debated and decided whether we could determine when and if we would become mothers; whether we had the right to walk safely in our own communities, free from the fear of rape and assault; and whether we would participate fully in the political process.

Bottom line: We won some and lost some. Some battles were postponed until another day. Too much of our energy was drained by the need to ensure we don’t lose our linchpin to personal and economic autonomy: the right to choose if and when we will become mothers.

This week marks the 80th anniversary of women’s suffrage in this country, but it won’t be a time for fireworks and cymbal-clashing during this, the presidential campaign in which "the women’s vote" which elected Bill Clinton will be critical for the next White House occupant. We take it for granted today that women not only must and should vote but also that they must and should become political leaders. We forget that the same anti-women smoke that obscured the real suffrage issue, and what it meant for women’s rights, also has shrouded the real abortion issue–and what it means for women’s personal autonomy and economic independence.

It’s worth recalling that in August 1920, Tennessee, the home state of Al Gore, became the 36th and final state to ratify the 19th amendment giving women the vote. Young lawmaker Harry Burns, once considered a sure "anti" vote, had just received a letter from his mother, Phoebe Burns, saying: "Dear Son: Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt [i.e. Carrie Chapman Catt] put the ‘rat’ in ratification. Your Mother."

Women’s suffrage, political rights and reproductive rights may be advanced in the United States and the West, but around the world women still lack the most basic human rights: the right to food and shelter, to education and employment, to the most basic kind of political participation. Progress in achieving these rights was the stuff of Beijing + Five.

Women’s Enews has asked Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Rutgers University Center for Women’s Global Leadership, to analyze the outcome of the Beijing + Five U.N. conference in June, the first major event in what we have dubbed the Women’s Summer. A central figure in the international women’s rights movement, Bunch presided over the caucus of non-governmental organizations, strategizing how best to lobby the U.N. conference delegates and home governments to support women’s rights. Her energizing analysis is Tuesday’s news commentary.

Women’s Enews asked someone less involved, but just as knowledgeable, to comment on the Republican National Convention. The GOP leadership ignored the all-out lobbying effort by pro-choice Republicans and once again enshrined in its platform a call for a constitutional amendment barring all abortions, even at the risk to a mother’s life. It rejected calls to remain neutral and acknowledge differing points of view. Tanya Melich, life-long Republican and author of the "Republican War against Women," will have her say on Wednesday. Hint: She did not attend the convention, concluding correctly that her party would not listen to the likes of her.

At the Democratic convention, choice was not the issue. Presidential candidate Al Gore promises he will defend it. However, the party’s traditional, whole-hearted support for affirmative action was in doubt and many were troubled by the issue of school vouchers because of early votes by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the vice presidential pick. And by the selection of Lieberman was the party taking the black vote, particularly the black women’s vote for granted? Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, executive director and chief operating officer of the Black Leadership Forum, has repeatedly pointed out that 90 percent of black women voted Democratic in 1996 and gave Clinton his second presidency. Women’s Enews asked Scruggs-Leftwich to assess where black women stand with the current Democratic leadership. You will read her comments on Thursday.

The interplay between political power and judicial decisions was never clearer than with this term’s U.S. Supreme Court decisions and the war crime trials for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

Yolanda Wu, staff attorney for NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, will provide Women’s Enews readers a concise, and alarming, overview of rulings by a deeply divided High Court. In addition to demonstrating how vulnerable our rights are, she also makes clear the close linkage between women’s rights and the civil rights of racial and ethnic minorities as well as homosexuals. Her piece will appear Friday.

At the core of all of our civil rights and concerns, of course, is the persistent violence against women and minorities: The target could be an immigrant vendor living in the Bronx, an African-American in a small Texas town, a gay young man in a Wyoming bar or a woman walking in New York’s Central Park on a June afternoon during the Puerto Rican Day Parade.

Therefore, the most significant advance in women’s rights this summer may be occurring in The Hague, where for the first time systematic rape is being prosecuted as a war crime stemming from the Bosnia atrocities. Next week Linda R. Hirshman, professor of philosophy and women’s studies at Brandeis University, will explain the connection between the Central Park "wilding," the Bosnia trial and the continued need for women to meet, argue, lobby and demonstrate for our political rights.

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