WASHINGTON – Nearly 500 women, representing women’s organizations across the country, met here April 8-9 and vowed to “stand up and fight” for women’s needs. Speakers at the Women’s Equality Summit and Congressional Action Day discussed policies and organizing strategies focusing on key issues of concern to working and low-income women: stopping the privatization of Social Security, protecting reproductive rights, guaranteeing and expanding the social safety net for poor and working women, pay equity and achieving real economic and political equality.

Throughout the summit, convened by the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO), speakers noted the contradiction between the Bush administration’s lip service to human rights and women’s rights in places like Afghanistan and its attack on these rights here at home. “We cannot and must not roll over and play dead on issues that deal with women and the working poor in this country,” said Barbara Easterling, secretary-treasurer of the Communciations Workers of America.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) lambasted Bush and the ultra-right as “shameless in fighting for the rich and special corporate interests.” She said, “We have to be more shameless than they are in fighting for the needs of women.”

Assailing Bush’s “Enron economics,” Schakowsky denounced the Bush administration’s proposed $48 billion increase in the already bloated military budget, contrasted with a zero increase in assistance to needy families. “Bush has let nothing divert him from an attack on women’s rights,” she said.

Many speakers noted that, while some women support a war on terrorism, they do not support the Bush agenda. Dr. Dorothy Height, veteran leader of the National Council of Negro Women, said, “Terrorism is not going to hold us back. We’re going to keep moving on the things we care about.”

“We need to speak out against terror in all forms,” said Kendra Fox-Davis, a leader of Grassroots Organizing for Welfare Leadership, including “the daily terror of not being able to feed your children.”

Many speakers, including Fox-Davis, assailed Bush’s proposal to funnel $300 million a year to “marriage promotion” programs as a solution to poverty, calling the proposal a return to discrimination based on marital status. “This is another form of government intrusion into the personal lives of women,” Fox-Davis said. “Didn’t our mothers struggle for economic and political independence?”

NCWO is the nation’s oldest and largest umbrella coalition of some 160 women’s groups, representing 8 million women.

Betty Henderson, a senior member of United Methodist Women from Virginia, told the World the issues discussed at the summit “are our issues – Social Security, economic justice, minimum wage, TANF [Temporary Aid to Needy Families].”

Ann Lewis, a former White House Counselor to Bill Clinton and currently national chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Women’s Vote Center, told the meeting the 2002 elections will be critical for women. “On every issue, we speak for the majority of Americans,” Lewis said. “The task for us is: how do we make sure women out there understand what is at stake. … The direction this country takes will be determined in this election.”

The results of the elections, Lewis said, will determine what happens next on Social Security, among other things. Dr. Heidi Hartman, NCWO vice chair, said privatization of Social Security would be especially devastating for women, minorities and the disabled. She and many others noted that Social Security is an especially important safety net for women because they live longer than men and earn less. Summit participants joined Reps. Schakowsky, Robert Matsui (D-Calif.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) at a news conference opposing Social Security privatization. Schakowsky charged the Bush was seeking to “Enronize Social Security.”

Eleanor Smeal, head of the Feminist Majority, called attention to the U.S. failure to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which has been ratified by 168 countries including all other developed countries. Bush has also put a hold on funding for the U.N. Population Fund. What this means, Smeal said, is that “millions of women and girls suffer needlessly” because they are being kept away from contraception and protections from sexually transmitted disease and HIV/AIDS. Smeal urged action on these issues.

“Whether it is defending Social Security or reproductive choice,” Fox-Davis told the World, “we are standing up on the whole gamut of women’s issues and not leaving any community of women left out.”

The author can be reached at suewebb3@lycos.com


Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.