WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--Since mid-summer, the political uproar over health-care reform appears to have sidetracked the Obama administration's pro-woman appointments and initiatives.
By the August recess, the Senate had confirmed 17 leadership positions in the Department of Labor, but five nominees awaited confirmation and four other leader positions had no nominees.
Among the unfilled positions: head of the Women's Bureau, a Labor Department agency that Rachna Choudhry, a policy and advocacy manager at the National Partnership for Women and Families, said put out influential workplace statistics during the Clinton administration but produced little useful data during the Bush years.
Choudhry and others are hoping that under President Obama, the bureau resumes its aggressive research on women's workplace disparities, which sustains the work of women's advocates.
Other unfilled leadership roles include administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, which can direct assistance to girls and women to encourage economic opportunities, political participation and legal rights.
Jessica Arons, director of the Women's Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington, D.C., said that post is crucial for aid to women and girls internationally.
The leadership vacancies echo uneven progress on several high-profile legislative initiatives.
President Obama drew praise in the first few days of his administration for signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which effectively reversed a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that made it more difficult to sue for wage discrimination.
"That sent a strong message that issues important to working women are important to this administration," said Choudhry.
Other early actions by Obama in January brought two strong gains in the area of reproductive rights: enactment of legislation that lowered the cost of contraceptives at clinics serving low-income and college women and restored U.S. funding for United Nations family planning services around the world that had been banned under Republican administrations.
But since then, momentum on legislation, regulatory changes and political appointments favored by women's rights advocates has slowed as the push for health care expansion has become ensnared in contentious town hall meetings and allegations that it amounts to a government "death panel."
Since passage of the Ledbetter law, the Senate has stalled two measures passed by the House: the Paycheck Fairness Act, which aims to expand workplace discrimination protections, and the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act, which would allow four weeks of paid time off for births or adoptions.
Not long ago, however, women's advocates had many gains to count.
Six weeks after signing the Ledbetter law in late January, Obama created the White House Council on Women and Girls, which aims to spur administration initiatives of special concern to women and girls. A handful of women's rights advocates interviewed by Women's eNews could not point to any significant accomplishments from that group yet, but many said they assume the council keeps federal agency leaders aware of women's special interests. The Council on Women and Girls launched its Web site on August 26, Women's Equality Day.
In March, Obama created the State Department's Office of Global Women's Issues and the next month the Senate confirmed Melanne Verveer as ambassador-at-large for global women's issues. In June the White House established a White House advisor on violence against women, which drew praise for spotlighting a critical women's rights issue.
More Good News
Early summer brought more good news.
After the unexpected resignation of Supreme Court Justice David Souter the Obama administration saw congressional Democrats lead the way on confirming Judge Sonia Sotomayor as the first Latina on the High Court.
The Obama administration's appointment of seven women out of the 21 Cabinet-level posts--including the notable appointment of Hilda Solis as secretary of the Labor Department--fell short of the number of women appointed by either President George W. Bush or President Clinton.
One of those appointments--Secretary of State Hillary Clinton--won outsized satisfaction among many women. Clinton has used her leadership role to bring unprecedented attention to crises facing women around the world, including systematic rape in the war-torn eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. She said she plans to make women more central in U.S. international aid efforts.
The Obama administration has also heavily stocked lower-level appointments with women, making them about 50 percent of all appointees, said Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson.
But Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations for the American Association of University Women, in Washington, D.C., is focused on unfinished business. She is waiting for the administration to reverse Bush-era changes--in 2005--to Title IX regulations, the law requiring educational institutions that receive federal grants to provide equal opportunities in sports and all other activities.
The Title IX change allowed universities to determine if they were meeting the female students' interest in sports teams, in part, through e-mailed surveys, a process advocates considered inherently flawed. "It was essentially civil rights enforcement through spam," said Maatz.
As the health-reform debate has heated up and distracted from other aims, women's rights advocates have been drawn in.
The National Organization for Women and the Center for American Progress, for instance, have focused on fighting media campaigns that say public health care will provide taxpayer-funded abortions.
"People who support health care reform are not trying to expand or restrict abortion," Arons said. "We're trying to expand access to comprehensive health care."
NOW has been closely tracking the health reform bills and urging members to contact their representatives at crucial points in the legislative process.
Those kinds of activities are expected to continue to consume Washington's attention through much of the fall.
"We realize that health care reform, being a big priority, is taking a lot of the administration's energy," said Choudhry, of the National Partnership for Women and Families.
Rich Daly is a writer in Washington D.C.
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