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A Shortsighted President Shortchanges Women
Published on Tuesday, April 10, 2001 in the Boston Globe
A Shortsighted President Shortchanges Women
by Betsy Myers
 
IN DECIDING whether or not there is a need for a special White House office to focus on women's issues, President Bush should have consulted four experts: his mother, his wife, and his two daughters. He should have asked them whether women have achieved parity with men and whether the federal government has done all that it can to help grandmothers, mothers, and daughters live out full and valued lives.

I suspect they would have advised him to maintain and strengthen the office, rather than shutting the doors.

I served as first director of the White House Women's Office after President Clinton created it in 1995. I know the valuable role the office played in providing women a seat at the policy-making table and how it enhanced the lives of women.

In the first two years, we conducted nearly 2,000 ''at the table'' discussions in which senior administration officials listened to small groups of women in their living rooms and places of business.

What we learned is that regardless of ideological interests or party affiliation, the majority of women are concerned about the same things: Bread and butter issues such as caring for children while caring for aging parents, balancing work and home life, planning for retirement while saving to send their children to college, dealing with escalating school violence, finding the safest after-school care, and managing the growing costs of health care are top priorities.

These sessions were one of the many ways that the office brought the voices and views of women to the White House.

If Bush had looked at the government statistics and research, he would have known that, despite significant gains by women in the work force, business world, political field, and academia, women still lag behind men in significant economic respects. Although women constitute about 50 percent of the work force, more than 63 percent of all workers earning minimum wage or below are women. Official statistics also tell us that we have much more to do to increase women's access to health care, education, capital, contracts, and a livable wage. The White House should have seized the opportunity to build upon the progress that had been made by the women's office.

The White House Office for Women's Initiatives and Outreach gave women a seat at the president's table, allowing them to make important contributions on issues that have an impact in people's daily lives. But that wasn't all. The office served as a focal point in coordinating programs of federal agencies that addressed the interests of women and recognized the importance of women's involvement.

These include the Small Business Administration's Office of Women's Business Ownership; the Department of Labor's Women's Bureau; the Justice Department's Office of Violence Against Women; the Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Women's Health (Public Health Service), Office of Research on Women's Health (National Institutes of Health), and Office of Women's Health (Food and Drug Administration); the Department of Veterans Affairs Office for Women Veterans; the Interagency Committee on Women's Business Enterprise; and the National Women's Business Council.

The benefits of collaboration made a significant difference in several areas for women that included equal pay, women's business development, domestic violence prevention, and breast cancer research.

The closing of the office may appear small to some, but it is very symbolic. The decision for women, along with the reversal of important executive orders and policies, will be quite significant over the next four years It could take years for women to restore the progress that was made during the Clinton administration.

In Bush's desire to reach out to different constituencies, he has shut off an important channel.

The White House Women's Office of Initiatives and Outreach, which allowed all women, regardless of party affiliation, religion, color, or income, to participate in government would have been a tremendous asset.

It is a shame that when the president could have benefited so much from the inclusion of women's voices, he has chosen to take an important chair away from the table.

Betsy Myers is director of alumni programs at John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company

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