Cheers and Jeers

(WOMENSENEWS)–Barriers for women were broken in U.S. politics and hints of reform emerged in unlikely places this year. At the same time, women felt the impact of a global recession and faced a backlash in the battle to secure equal rights. Here are the Women’s eNews top stories for women of 2008:


  • The presidential campaign added new cracks to the ceiling of the world’s most powerful political office. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York became the first female presidential front-runner before losing the Democratic primary to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, whose victory signals the restoration of a more woman-friendly administration to the White House. Clinton gained 18 million votes and ultimately made it easier for a woman to run for the highest offices. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin became the GOP’s first female vice-presidential nominee, electrifying the Republican base while drawing the ire of women’s rights activists.
  • U.S. voters in three states turned back serious bids to strip abortion rights from women and a divided anti-choice movement was set back in its efforts to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. In California, an initiative to require parental consent was defeated for the third time. In South Dakota an abortion ban failed to muster enough support to become law and was too restrictive for voters in a state generally considered unsupportive of abortion rights. Colorado voters soundly rejected an initiative to define a fertilized egg as a person with full legal rights, a law that would not only have banned all abortions but imperiled birth control and stem cell research. Similar “personhood” measures were quashed in Montana and Georgia before they could make it to the ballot.
  • International groups and United Nations health officials drew a strong connection between gender-based violence and the feminization of AIDS at a Mexico City conference in August. By combating discrimination and violence against women and making them integral in anti-AIDS strategies, officials believe infections will be reduced. In 2007, an estimated 2.7 million people became infected with the virus, adding to the 33 million HIV-positive people around the globe. In February the United Nations also launched a $44 million initiative to reduce female genital mutilation in 28 nations. The cultural practice has affected between 100 million and 140 million girls and women.
  • Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero of Spain declared himself a feminist after his election and then proved it by appointing nine women to his 17-member cabinet in April. Spain’s parliament is 36 percent female, nearly double the world average of 19 percent. Zapatero also pushed for loosening restrictions against abortion, which are largely performed under a law that allows abortion to preserve a woman’s mental health. A Spanish judge in April threw out charges against 21 women accused of receiving illegal abortions. Following that case, the Zapatero government increased privacy protections for women seeking abortions and stepped up funding for international efforts to combat violence against women.
  • Signs of reform for Arab women emerged in 2008, starting with an announcement from the Saudi government in January that women would be allowed to check into hotels alone. Saudi women’s rights activists continued to press for easing the rules of guardianship, which require them to receive permission from men for nearly every aspect of their lives. In March a Saudi judge granted a woman the right to marry without her father’s permission for the first time. In the United Arab Emirates presidential decrees led to the appointment of the first female judge and a doubling–from two to four–of the number of women who serve as national ministers. In December King Mohammed VI of Morocco publicly declared his support for women’s rights, proclaimed women equal and formally withdrew the nation’s reservations to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the CEDAW treaty.


  • Women’s unemployment increases were more than double the rate for men’s job losses during the economic downturn that hit the United States hard in the final months of the year. In November the Department of Labor reported that women’s joblessness increased 9 percent, while men’s unemployment increased 4 percent. Women comprise the bulk of the low-wage work force in the slumping retail sector. Polling also showed that women worried more than men about their economic security and identified the economy as their top concern during the elections. A January study found that only 22 percent of loans provided by the Small Business Administration were given to women-owned businesses. Women also carried a disproportionate share of the subprime mortgages that helped ignite the economic crisis.
  • The rising demand in biofuel became a culprit in the 2008 global food crisis that resulted in drastically higher prices in many developing nations. Women are about 70 percent of the world’s poorest people and high prices forced many to cut back on feeding themselves and their families. But women–who perform up to 80 percent of the agricultural work force in developing nations–were also harder hit by the food crisis as they face limits to their ability to control the land they farm. Inheritance restrictions and lack of capital and technology continue to burden women’s ability to advance beyond subsistence farming, squeezing them harder as nations diverted resources toward biofuel development.
  • The year started off on a promising note for lesbians and gays working to gain full marriage rights in the United States as New Hampshire became the fourth state to implement civil unions in January. In California activists had a sweeping victory in May when the state’s highest court authorized same-sex marriages and hopes ran high that the ruling would influence change across the nation. But lesbian couples married in June were dealt a bitter defeat in November when their marriages were invalidated by the state’s voters, who overturned the court decision by enacting a same-sex marriage ban. And research from activists in June showed that the military discriminates against lesbians–and women accused of being lesbian–at higher rates than men under its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
  • The Iranian government cracked down hard on women’s rights activists this year, especially targeting those involved with the One Million Signatures campaign demanding equal rights for women. Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi and dozens of other activists have been subjected to pressure and smear campaigns, detainments, arrests and harassment. The intimidation tactics were ramped up with the January shuttering of Zanan, the pro-women’s rights magazine in Iran. By closing down a publication whose title meant “Woman” in Farsi, the government started 2008 off by sending a strong signal to activist women of the oppressive measures headed their way.
  • The U.S. administration pushed ahead with the war on contraception by enacting a federal “conscience” rule in December in the final days of the George W. Bush presidency. The rule allows any health care employee to deny any form of service they personally object to, allowing them to refuse to provide abortion, abortion referrals, birth control prescriptions, emergency contraception for rape victims or any other request from patients, even if it the denial would negatively affect a woman’s health. The conscience rule was viewed by many activists as an over-the-top assault on women’s rights to impartial health care.

Jennifer Thurston is managing editor of Women’s eNews.

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