Commentary

Time to Bury Reagan's Legacy for Women

Friday, June 11, 2004

In a special commentary, Martha Burk, head of an organization representing 6 million women, argues President Reagan injected into Republican politics a strain of virulent anti-woman policies that continues to infect its ideology.

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Martha Burk

(WOMENSENEWS)--Ronald Reagan will be eulogized, lionized, and darn near canonized before the week is over. Thousands queued up in California to pay respect; thousands more lined the streets as his cortege snaked its way through Washington and still more filed through the Capitol rotunda to view the flag-draped coffin.

The most anti-woman president of the 20th century will be buried today. Too bad hispolicies can't be buried with him. Unfortunately, they're still very much alive. The Reagan "vision" for America, with its disproportionately negative impact on the female half, has become the centerpiece of Republican dogma and not a small part of national law.

The 40th president was indeed a clear-eyed visionary. He envisioned a world where women would never be granted equality in the U.S. Constitution, where abortion was illegal and equal employment laws a thing of the past.

Lest we forget the truly monumental accomplishments of this man:


Wiping ERA Off Republican Agenda

Reagan began his assault on women even before he was elected. The Republicans had been the first major party to champion constitutional equality for women, putting the Equal Rights Amendment in their platform in 1940. Ronnie ended that. At his bidding, the ERA disappeared from the GOP platform at the 1980 convention that nominated him to be the party's standard-bearer.

At the same time, Reagan backed a Human Life Amendment that would ban abortion and even some types of birth control. When most people think about Ronald Reagan and women, it will be this anti-abortion stance that will come to mind first. For many, his name is infamously twinned with the 1984 "Mexico City Policy," which dried up money for international family planning.

But many more policies harmed women that were either "under the radar" or not obviously connected to women in the eyes of most Americans.

Smaller government, a belief Reagan held with a religious zealotry, translated directly to smaller government departments.

This meant the shrinking of departments such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged with investigating sex discrimination in the workplace. The effect of this was to send a signal that the government would turn a blind eye to pay gaps and sexual harassment now that employers had a friend in the White House.

Even while sex discrimination claims rose 25 percent during the 1980s, the Reagan administration cut the EEOC budget in half, slashed its caseload to a third of its former size and put the soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas--a man who didn't believe discrimination existed--in charge with a directive to investigate "by the book." That was code for delay, drag out and drop cases. Many women with legitimate claims simply gave up and tried to move to another job; if they could find one in the Reagan recession. The EEOC, like most other government agencies slashed in the Reagan years, has never recovered.


Trapping Women in Poverty Wages

Reagan also publicly insulted single mothers raising children with the help of federal assistance by calling them "welfare queens," thus setting the stage for the dramatic retrenchment of aid to families headed by women. At the same time, Reagan refused to raise the minimum wage and instilled in the national psyche a belief that higher wages for the lowest level workers cost jobs. (This turned out to be a false assumption. While macroeconomic policy is always an unpredictable art, the eventual raising of the minimum wage in 1996--from $4.25 to $4.75--did not result in layoffs and apparently did not stand in the way of the 1990s boom.)

Then, as now, the largest group of minimum wage workers was adult women. Translation: more women and their children in poverty, more women holding two low-paying jobs to make ends meet and less food on the table, period. Well, all except catsup, which Reagan tried to have declared a vegetable as he cut school lunch programs.

Reagan welcomed the New Right, headed by ultra-conservatives from The Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and the Free Congress Foundation. They wasted no time putting forth their agenda in the form of the so-called Family Protection Act, introduced in 1981.

It would have dismantled equal education laws, banned "intermingling of the sexes in any sport or other school-related activities," required that marriage and motherhood be taught as career choices for girls (but not, of course, marriage and fatherhood for boys) and banned legal aid for women seeking a divorce. The act never passed. These ideas were seen as out of the mainstream back then. But the seeds were sown.

Legal aid all but disappeared under George H.W. Bush.

Under his son George W. Bush (who reinstated Mexico City after a brief rescission under Clinton), the torch is still carried high. Though he failed to dismantle Title IX prohibitions against gender discrimination in education (women's groups fomented a revolt among soccer moms and dads), other Reagan-era tenets have become reality under W. Look at the anti-woman roster he has racked up: the first federal abortion ban, federally funded abstinence-only sex education and marriage promotion for welfare recipients.

Conservatives will wax eloquent in the coming days that Reagan's economic agenda with its record deficits, tax cuts for the rich and dismantling of social programs, was ahead of its time. They'll be right. It took until the Clinton administration to complete Reagan's assault on poor women and their children by "ending welfare as we know it." The deficits of the 1980s look minuscule compared to today's black hole that is getting deeper every second, assuring that programs like the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program that provides milk, eggs and cereal to pregnant women, nursing mothers and infants will be starved far into the future.

This week we have all been forced to stop and contemplate Ronald Reagan's legacy. For women, it is a bitter harvest indeed.

Martha Burk is president of the Center for Advancement of Public Policy in Washington, D.C. Burk is also chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations. The opinion is her own.

For more information:

Institute for Women's Policy Research:
http://www.iwpr.org

National Council of Women's Organizations:
http://www.womensorganizations.org/


 
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