Among the most admirable aspects of George W. Bush’s public persona is his respect for the women who work for him. His ease with female leadership at the highest levels of his campaign and in the Oval Office suggests that he is in fact a man of his generation, however often he denigrates the liberal activism that revived the movement for sexual equality.
The recent resignation of Karen Hughes, the most important woman in his political life, displayed the skills that made her so valuable to him as the White House communications czarina. Skepticism was abandoned as the media beatified her (and indirectly her boss) with an aura of familial loyalty and powerful sisterhood. One need not doubt Ms. Hughes’ stated concerns about her family or her yearning for her home state to notice that symbolism and personality have, as usual, overwhelmed substance in the gooey tributes to her from the Washington press corps.
Aside from her rigid control of the meager, saccharine diet of information doled out to those same admiring journalists, the greatest service Ms. Hughes has performed for Mr. Bush was to soften the edges of his right-wing agenda. A moderate by contrast with his other advisers, she was among the chief promoters of “compassionate conservatism,” a theme to which he returned this week. Her very presence at his side blurred the pious Texan’s attraction to the misogynist and patriarchal ideology of the religious right, and to advisers such as Marvin Olasky, who extol the Biblical “submission” of women to their husbands.
For the upper-middle-class opinion elite that dominates political discourse in the capital, this bland, unthreatening and very Republican feminism is the only acceptable version of “identity politics.” While serving an obvious political need, and catering to the career aspirations of a few well-connected women, it does little or nothing to mitigate policies that injure the female population beyond the Beltway.
Indeed, despite the well-publicized power of Ms. Hughes and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, the Bush administration has eroded rather than advanced the cause of women in government. Among the first actions taken by Mr. Bush after his inauguration was to shut down the White House Office for Women’s Initiatives and Outreach, thus removing the Presidential imprimatur from its mission of addressing women’s problems in federal agencies. When this backward step was criticized, the excuse offered by Ms. Hughes’ spokesminions was that the office had “expired at the end of President Clinton’s term.” They promised that its expiration wouldn’t affect the new administration’s “outreach” on behalf of women.
The hollowness of that soothing reassurance soon became painfully clear. Whenever they “reached out,” the hands of the White House budget managers were holding a big ax. They quietly moved to abolish the 10 regional offices of the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau, crippling the department’s capacity to enforce female-friendly laws and regulations (despite the presence of a woman as Labor Secretary).
By the end of 2001, the hopes of Republican feminists had been thoroughly disappointed. The Brookings Institution’s ongoing study of Presidential appointments showed last December that only 26 percent of jobs requiring Senate confirmation-meaning top executive and foreign-service positions -had been awarded to women. This represented a sharp drop from the Clinton administration, which gave an unprece-dented 46 percent of Senate-confirmed offices to women during its first year.
Meanwhile, the male appointees in Mr. Bush’s cabinet didn’t hesitate to express their hostility to reproductive rights and women’s issues. Tommy Thompson, the conservative zealot who runs the Department of Health and Human Services, promulgated a new regulation that extends health coverage under the Children’s Health Insurance Program to fetuses rather than pregnant women. A few weeks later, budget director Mitch Daniels struck again, this time attempting to eliminate contraceptive coverage from federal employees’ health-insurance plans.
This year, the President’s budget proposals would damage the interests of women in a variety of other ways, cutting away at day care, after-school programs and student loans. Or perhaps that’s the wrong way to put it, since there are women who benefit from Bush policies. They happen to be very wealthy women whose incomes were increased by the tax cut, and very conservative women whose political prominence is enhanced by association with the White House.
For most American women, however-whose interests are hardly identical with those of the Republican right-the Bush record hasn’t been improved by Karen Hughes and won’t be affected by her departure. Another woman may be named to take her place, but that would make about as much difference as Karl Rove putting on a dress.