By: Jing Geng
The Trump administration has now surpassed 100 days in office. The UK has triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, thereby formalizing the procedure for Brexit. Turkey is increasingly sliding towards dictatorship. In France, despite ultimately losing the presidency, far-right and anti-establishment candidate Marine Le Pen advanced in the first round of elections. Global Trumpism is in full effect.
While there has been a dizzying variety of causes for concern, including freedom of the press, state-sanctioned bigotry, international peace and security, and climate change, I would like to focus my commentary on the issue of gender equality. What has been the impact of recent events on women’s rights in the United States and around the world? What are the challenges and prospects for the advancement of women in these uncertain times?
To begin with, it should be noted that sex discrimination can be implicit. When we think about gender inequality, violence against women often comes to mind, though we should also be aware that discrimination manifests in various forms, both subtle and not-so-subtle. Even well-meaning measures to “protect” women have the risk of becoming “‘romantic paternalism’ which, in practical effect, put women not on a pedestal, but in a cage.” In reality, gender and power relations intersect and the resulting norms pervade society from the household to the highest political institutions. Even when implicit, sexism has very real and negative consequences for the status of women.
After 100 days, the new administration has already adopted policies which impact gender equality worldwide. For instance, vulnerable immigrant women in the United States are afraid to report domestic violence, and the administration has proposed defunding the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues. Many of the new measures touch upon women’s health, economic empowerment, and political participation. Each of these areas will be considered in turn.
Women’s Health: After the inauguration, one of Trump’s first executive orders was to re-instate the Mexico City Policy. The order revoked about $607 million in annual U.S. funding to global women’s organizations working in reproductive health. This lack of funding may result in 6.5 million unintended pregnancies and 21,700 maternal deaths worldwide over the next four years. The administration then withdrew $32.5 million in funding from the U.N. Population Fund. In a statement, the UNFPA noted that previous U.S. contributions have saved tens of thousands of women’s lives and have helped combat gender-based violence. Within the United States, Trump signed legislation in mid-April permitting states to withhold federal funding to Planned Parenthood and its affiliates. In response, Planned Parenthood stated that the measure would threaten access to health care for more than 4 million people.
Women’s Economic Empowerment: In late March, Trump signed an executive order revoking the 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order. As a result, federal contractors are no longer required to provide wage transparency, and workers with sex discrimination claims must arbitrate them in secret. The revocation of these protections occurs at a time when the gender pay gap persists and when women are reluctant to report sexual harassment. Interestingly, First Daughter Ivanka Trump advocates for working women and investing in female entrepreneurs, while simultaneously paying them $62 a week for 60 hours of work.
Women’s Political Participation: The election of a blatantly sexist President underscores the difficulty in shattering the highest glass ceiling. Of Trump’s fifteen cabinet members, only two positions are held by women. In fact, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren sought to oppose the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, she was silenced by Sen. Mitch McConnell. Warren is one of only twenty-one women in the Senate. When Nancy Pelosi called Trump after the election to discuss women’s issues, he reportedly handed the phone to Ivanka. As the highest-ranking woman in a mostly male staff, the First Daughter has poised herself to be a champion of gender equality both domestically and abroad. However, critics wonder whether Ivanka is promoting a brand of palatable and opportunistic feminism. The message seems to be that there is room for women in politics, if they are agreeable.
A Bleak Future for Vulnerable Women? Although much attention was paid to white male voters and “ambivalent sexism” prior to the election, polls ultimately showed that 53% of white women voted for and thus helped to elect Trump. This result underscores the fact that women are not a homogeneous group. Moreover, women, as well as men, may internalize and endorse gender norms. While there has been worldwide progress in the promotion of women’s social, economic, and political rights, we still have a long way to go. Indeed, a rise in authoritarianism correlates with support for hierarchical and traditional gender roles. One need only recall that it was conservative Phyllis Schlafly who helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment.
Reasons for Optimism: The day after Trump’s inauguration, I joined half a million protesters in the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. Across the country, an estimated 1 in 100 of all Americans mobilized in what was the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. The election result motivated more women to seek political office. Across the nation, women called their elected officials and gathered at airports to represent immigrants and refugees affected by the travel ban. The reinstatement of the aforementioned Mexico City Policy prompted multiple countries to pledge funding for global women’s health. In the age of internet advocacy, the public amplified Elizabeth Warren’s voice after she was silenced. In other words, there are always actions and reactions; movements and counter-movements.
We are now in a historical moment where the pendulum seems to be swinging against gender equality and progress. Those of us concerned with women’s issues all have the unique opportunity to be the authors of our envisioned future. Indeed, actions must speak louder than words, and there is no time for complacency. As former president Jimmy Carter has argued, those with relative privilege must sincerely care about gender discrimination. We will need to remain vigilant and speak up, because so much is at stake at home and abroad.