As the first United Nations agency for women struggles for more sweeping support from governments, and advocates raise alarms that another international conference on women would be more dangerous than helpful to the cause, women in the United States also find themselves defending their rights as politics erode gains that have been made in the last decades.
At UN Women, which began operating just a year and a half ago as the single UN agency to ensure gender equality, donations have been disappointing. Contributions rose only 33 percent over the previous year, causing Michelle Bachelet, the executive director, to announce last week that financing goals for 2011, however ambitious, had not been met. The agency will therefore cut its target for the next two years to the “bare minimum” of $700 million, she said.
Another prominent women’s group, the Gender Equality Architecture Reform (Gear), a network of more than 300 organizations that propelled UN Women into existence, also noted “surprise” that some UN Women board members have not pledged money to the agency so far this year.
“UN Women needs stronger commitments from all countries to fulfill its mandate and strengthen its regional architecture,” Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls, a Fijian and executive director of FemLinkPacific, said in a statement.
The status of women has edged so close to vulnerability that a UN proposal for a fifth global conference on women in 2015 is foundering as influential advocates and nongovernmental groups lobby to prevent the meeting for fear it will become an opportunity to negate women’s advances.
Even the Girls Scouts of the USA is feeling the brunt against women’s rights, as troop members doing Millennium Development Goals badge work avoid Goal 5, which includes reproductive health, so as not to antagonize American Catholic bishops’ groups. They have threatened to pull support from the Girl Scouts for any focus on contraception.
At the New York Society for Ethical Culture in Manhattan, an aptly titled forum for the times, “Resurgence of Misogyny,” ranged far and wide behind the reasons for the “assault” against women’s rights, as Joseph Chuman, a leader at Ethical Culture, characterized current conditions.
The May 29 forum was moderated by Lori Lipman Brown, a former Nevada state senator, and featured Nancy Northup, chief executive of the Center for Reproductive Rights; Debora Spar, president of Barnard College; and Katha Pollitt, a columnist for The Nation.
Brown began by citing an editorial published in The New York Times that asked what happened to the outrage in the campaign against women on abortion limits and birth control accessibility.
“I actually think that we’ve seen a fair amount of outrage,” Northup responded, saying she was heartened by the reaction people showed to the “dust-ups” on women’s rights, including the backlash against the commentator Rush Limbaugh, who called a Georgetown law student this winter a “slut” for speaking out on women’s rights to birth control.
“It’s not just about abortion, it’s about contraception, about women’s sexuality, women’s agency, women’s decision-making,” Northup added.
Women’s access to abortion in the US, especially among poor women, is weakening, especially in certain geographic areas, Pollitt said. She noted highly restrictive state laws in the South and the Dakotas, all a result of the federal system, which has “allowed a lot of terrible things to happen in places that don’t get really much news coverage of this kind.”
“As long as it’s possible for a middle-class person in much of the country … an adult person to get an abortion in much of the country, it’s really not going to be a huge issue for those people that a poor woman can’t get a Medicaid abortion,” she said.
At the same time, Spar of Barnard said that the women at her college have until the last six months “never really thought they had anything but choice.” This attitude not only pertains to their reproductive rights but also to all avenues of life, she said.
“We’ve given these girls this sort of dream of choice,” Spar said, but the new political circumstances, she predicted, will make women graduating now more politicized than they’ve been in a while as they realize “we can’t have it all.”
The attack on “choice” has never truly disappeared since the 1960s, when women fought to the right to abortion and won, the panelists said. But those who denounce abortion have remained unified and vocal and rely on successful tactics to project their views and provoke legal action.
One re-emerging tactic in the abortion battle, Brown said, was the linking of breast cancer to abortions, a medical question that first surfaced in 2001 and was since debunked. But that has not stopped Kansas from trying to pass a law requiring doctors to tell abortion seekers that the procedure can increase chances of breast cancer, she said.
So why do such issues keep coming back?, Brown asked.
“The anti-choice movement is very shrewd and very determined,” Pollitt said, as it reverts to old-faithful scare tactics and successful new strategies that include videos done undercover at abortion clinics. The videos, Pollitt added, are effective and often timed for legislation.
“It’s easy to make fun of the anti-choice movement when we’re sitting here at the Ethical Culture Society,” she said, but “the anti-choice people are getting better at their work and more politically sophisticated over the years,” whereas she didn’t know “if our side has gotten better at it.”
The battles between abortion opponents and proponents have always been ideological, Northup said. “This is a fundamental difference, where religion is at the base of it — about the role of women in society, about the role of sexuality in people’s lives, about whether sex for pleasure is something acceptable or not acceptable.”
Spar said she saw no middle ground between the opponents, starting with a lack of consensus on when life begins. “Other countries have managed this far less politically. It is a religious debate, with deeply held views” and little compromise.
Moreover, the anti-choice movement speaks loud and clear, backed by the Catholic Church and Southern Baptists, while pro-choice religious groups, like the Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, stay quiet, Pollitt said. “Our side is just very timid” and unwilling to say that “we believe in sexual pleasure.”
“Pro-life” people meet regularly in churches, where the cause is structured in a tight framework; whereas opponents claim no national center, Pollitt added. Spar noted that abortion foes have good slogans and stay committed to the cause.
The talk shifted to President Obama’s commencement speech at Barnard in May, allowing Spar to say that his administration, with help from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has been striving hard to expand women’s rights and promote their causes in the US and abroad, like tackling female genital mutilation.
The announcement on Obama’s commencement speech set off disparaging blog remarks, Spar said, as the panelists segued to the main topic, misogyny, which they said thrives not just in politics but in ordinary settings, particularly discussions online, where coarse language pops up with topics on women. The heated “mommy wars” in the US – stay-at-home mothers versus those who work – has a political, economic and social nature, too.
“If you ever start to want a fight, ask a group of women what they do because you immediately divide into those who work and those who stay at home,” Spar, who is a political scientist, said. Such divisiveness stokes infighting, making it easier for politicians to exploit to win votes.
Men, however, do not fall into these gender traps, the panelists said, because the standards for fathers are low, Pollitt said, suggesting it was time for “daddy wars.”
The feud among American women reflects US society as a whole, Spar said, which lacks routine family supports that other countries own, like nationalized child care in France. America’s thin sense of community and social cohesiveness increase the disequilibrium.
Inevitably, the Nordic countries’ reputation for gender equality sprang up, with paid parental leave for both mother and father called a potential model for American society.
But Bachelet’s remarks to the UN Women board last week rang forcefully on the state of gender parity. “There is no country that can truly claim to have achieved gender equality, which is free of any last vestige of discrimination, or where no women has ever experienced any of the varied manifestations of disempowerment, whether in the public or private spheres, and we seek to reflect this in the way we work.”
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.