Despite Loss on Family Planning, Women’s Groups See Success in the Stimulus

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Despite Loss on Family Planning, Women’s Groups See Success in the Stimulus

Lindsay E. Beyerstein

National women’s rights advocacy groups are using their newfound political clout with the Obama administration to shape the $825 billion economic stimulus package.

Correction: The article’s claim, below, that NOW PAC spent $239,364 on Democratic candidates for Congress in 2008, versus $38,419 spent in 2004, is not correct, as it is comparing separate expenses.  The $239,364 total includes operational and other expenses not included in the $38,419 amount. In fact, in an equitable comparison of expenses, the NOW PAC spent $130,641
for 2004 a number much closer to the 2008 expense than previously reported.

National women’s rights advocacy groups are using their newfound
political clout with the Obama administration to shape the $825 billion
economic stimulus package.

In late 2008, when the debate over the stimulus bill was in full
swing, many feminists feared that the package would shortchange women
by focusing job creation on the male-dominated construction industry.
Feminist author and activist Linda Hirshman was among the first to wave
a red flag in an influential New York Times op-ed.
“Women represent almost half the work force — not exactly a marginal
special interest group,” Hirshman wrote. “By adding a program for jobs
in libraries, schools and children’s programs, the new administration
can create jobs for them, too.”

Meanwhile several national women’s groups began a quiet but
concerted pressure campaign on Obama and members of Congress to keep
women’s economic security on the stimulus agenda.

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In the bill, which passed in the house Wednesday, feminist
organizations appear to have gotten much of what they wanted, including
notably sizable investments in health care, education, and job training
as well as billions of dollars to stabilize state budgets. For example,
the bill
includes $88 billion for Medicaid and $79 billion to help states
continue to provide public services, according to an analysis by the
Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. An estimated $150 billion
is allocated for various educational programs from kindergarten to
post-graduate education, the New York Times reported, Wednesday. These
big ticket expenditures are expected to create or sustain significant
numbers of jobs in female-dominated sectors of the economy, like
teaching, nursing, and social work. More broadly, these figures may be
an indication that feminist groups have more political clout and access
with the Obama administration than they did under President Bush.

As the stimulus began to take shape, women’s groups moved quickly to
cash in political capital they earned during the 2008 election. Last
year, women’s organizations threw themselves into Democratic politics
with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. The National Organization for Women,
the largest organization of feminist activists in the United States, took the unusual step of endorsing Obama for president. NOW’s main political action committee spent $239,364 to elect Democrats to Congress in 2008, compared to just $38,419 [see correction above] in 2004.

Planned Parenthood’s endorsement of Obama was only the second
presidential endorsement in the group’s 93-year history, the first
being John Kerry in 2004.

The main Planned Parenthood-allied PAC spent $556,870
on Congressional races in 2008, with 98 percent of the money going to
Democrats. Other feminist groups like EMILY’S List and the NARAL Pro-Choice America also rolled up their sleeves and backed
the Obama ticket. As a result, Obama came to power in the debt of
feminist groups for helping him get elected and expanding Democratic
majority in Congress, which will be key to passing his ambitious agenda.

From Planned Parenthood’s perspective, that investment appears to
have paid off, not only in the form of a pro-choice president, but also
in terms of access to power.

“It’s hard to overstate the difference from having a government
where there literally was no conversation to have a government reaching
out on on a whole range of issues,” said Laurie Rubiner, Planned
Parenthood’s vice president for public policy.

So, what’s in the package for women? “Expanding health for them,
childcare, unemployment insurance, direct help in higher food stamps,
and energy assistance,” said Joan Entmacher, vice president for family
economic stability at the National Women’s Law Center, a non-profit,
nonpartisan advocacy group that has worked closely with the Obama
transition team and key members of Congress. “It also protects a lot of
jobs for women in education, early education, and social work
services,” she added.

“You don’t get everything you ask for,” said Entmacher, “[But] we’re
pleased with the funding specifically targeted to childcare and Head
Start and other investment for children with disabilities.”

Other feminist leaders are also guardedly positive about the stimulus.

“We’re pretty happy with what we’re seeing so far,” said Kim Gandy,
president of the National Organization for Women, “But we’re waiting to
see details.”

Asked whether the Obama administration was more friendly to feminist
advocacy groups than the last administration, Gandy laughed and
replied, “Are you kidding? The difference is like night and day.”

Gandy says that NOW and other women’s groups have met with Obama’s
economic policy director Jason Furman and his senior aides to discuss
the needs of women in the stimulus. NOW even set up a special page on its website to document their interactions with the transition team.

Having won a seat at the table, Gandy said her organization made the
case for “investing in social infrastructure, like education and
health.” Gandy is gratified to see a “very, very sizable investment in
education,” including money set aside to train nurses and other health
care professionals.

However, feminist leaders also agree that whether the stimulus
package is fair to women will depend in large part on how the program
is implemented. The current stimulus package includes a $79 billion
Fiscal Stabilization Fund to help cash-strapped states maintain their
current public services in the face of massive revenue shortfalls and
increased demands on social welfare programs. Over half of the
stabilization money, $39 billion, will go directly to educational
institutions through existing federal formulas, according the latest
summary of the bill posted on the House Appropriations Committee website; but over $25 billion is to be used for “flexible fiscal relief,” meaning that the states would have broad discretion over how to spend the money.

There will be some structural safeguards. “States won’t be able to
just say we’re going to pour concrete across the entire state,”
Entmacher says. But states will still have to make tough choices that
will dramatically effect how women fare under the stimulus. Will
governors go along with powerful local construction interests and spend
money building new schools and libraries, or will they use the money to
hire more teachers and librarians?

“If there’s any life in the feminist movement, every chapter of NOW
would be writing to the governor,” says feminist writer Linda Hirshman.

NOW president Kim Gandy says that state and local chapters will make
their voices heard. “NOW is primarily a grassroots organization,” Gandy
says, “Our national operation is small compared to our state and local
chapters.” She expects that local NOW chapters will start pressuring
state and local politicians as soon as the plan is finalized.

The access to the new president and his top advisers feminist groups
have enjoyed so far is a change from the last eight years, but only
time will tell the extent of their influence. The first major test of the relationship between the White House and the women’s movement came on Wednesday when House Democrats announced that they had stricken the family planning expansion provision from the stimulus package. Obama personally appealed to the House Democrats to remove the provision.

Why would the same president who repealed the Global Gag order make a big show of taking birth control language out of the stimulus? Some political observers think that Obama went out of his way to appear conciliatory, knowing the GOP would rebuff his overtures. The goal, they think, was to make the GOP look like a bunch of partisan obstructionists.

Needless to say, the loss of the birth control provision was a blow to groups like Planned Parenthood, which had forcefully advocated the measure.