YOU'D THINK THAT President Bush wouldn't have to worry about women voters. His inner circle, after all, includes National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and women head the departments of labor, interior and agriculture and, until recently, the Environmental Protection Agency.
Bimbo eruptions, moreover, don't threaten his presidency the way his mysterious military past tends to.
So why, then, do political analysts describe Karl Rove as concerned with the president's "female troubles"?
Because this savvy political strategist knows that the administration's highly visible women -- as radio commentator Laura Flanders points out in her splendid new book, "Bushwomen" (Verso, 2004) -- provide good cover against charges of racism or sexism, but no protection against the president's actual policies that affect women's daily lives.
The Bushwomen are not, as Flanders makes clear, dummy window dressing. They are highly intelligent, wholly competent and profoundly conservative politicians who help mask the president's abysmal record on women's reproductive rights, child care, welfare, education and health care.
Rove must also know that women, who are 54 percent of the population and may very well decide the next presidential election, just might notice the difference between the presence of "all the president's women" and his conservative policies -- tax cuts for the wealthy, for example -- that do nothing to improve the lives of working women and their families.
A March 10 Gallup Poll, for example, found that Bush faces a gender gap that favors John Kerry by at least 7 percentage points. Single women -- one fifth of the nation's population, who tend to favor Democrats -- are now viewed as this election's demographic swing vote. If they and African American women (who also vote disproportionately for Democrats) ever voted in large numbers, the gender gap would destroy President Bush's chances for a second term.
Rove may therefore be just a bit worried about American women's future political loyalties. Recent studies have shown that single women, who earn modest salaries, do not support tax cuts for the wealthy or huge expenditures for war or the military. What they worry about is health care, economic security, Social Security and good schools. They also tend to support gay rights, abortion and gun control. Bush instead has opposed gun control, has chosen Supreme Court justices who would repeal Roe vs. Wade and has proposed a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage.
In his speeches, Bush nearly always mentions the importance of supporting women's rights, but his administration has done nothing to support CEDAW, the U.N. International Treaty for Women's Rights that has languished in the U.S. Senate. (We are the only industrialized nation that has not ratified the treaty, which puts our nation in the company of Iran and North Korea.) If passed, the treaty would address discrimination against American women in areas such as education, employment and health care.
The president has also failed to address a shocking scandal that has occurred on his watch as commander in chief: At least 112 female soldiers have reportedly been the victims of sexual assault or rape during the past 18 months in the war-front Central Command of Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait.
Many of these high-ranking women soldiers, moreover, have reported poor medical treatment, lack of counseling and incomplete criminal investigation by senior military officials. Some say they received threats warning them not to report the rapes.
Even worse, servicewomen who become pregnant as the result of rape must pay for their own abortions, because these procedures -- for political reasons -- are not covered as part of a soldier's medical care.
"What does it say about us as a people, as a nation, as the foremost military in the world, when our women soldiers sometimes have more to fear from their fellow soldiers than from the enemy?" asked Sen. Susan Collins, R- Maine, during a hearing last month.
The military has launched investigations, but President Bush, who has declared himself a war president, has failed to acknowledge and condemn the fact that female soldiers, while risking their lives in combat, simultaneously face sexual terrorism from some American troops.
Come to think of it, Rove has reason to be nervous: The president does, in fact, have some serious female troubles.
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle