(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Fifty-five percent of women voters (including 96 percent of African-American women voters and 67 percent of single women voters) voted for President Barack Obama this past November. Even if the president’s record on drones, detentions and deportations gave progressives pause, when it came to women’s rights, the GOP’s burning cross on the women’s movement’s metaphorical lawn certainly cast a distinguishing light. It wasn’t hard for the president and his party to play up the contrast between themselves and the party of fetal rights, forced pregnancy and “legitimate rape.”
Now, as President Obama’s second term begins, every women’s group seems to have a to-do list for the 113th Congress. As the American Association of University Women puts it: “President Obama should pay attention to women’s priorities, especially since women’s votes decided the 2012 election.”
Hopes are high that, early on, Congress will pass an inclusive, updated Violence Against Women Act with protections for immigrants, Native Americans and LGBTQ people. The Senate passed a bipartisan bill last year, but the House deformed it and the two versions were never reconciled. The National Organization for Women and others are pushing hard for a vote before March.
On healthcare, women’s groups are pleased that the Affordable Care Act banned “gender rating,” the practice by which health insurance providers have charged men and women different premiums, but “disappointed” (some put it more strongly) that the ACA enshrined in law the principle of the Hyde Amendment, the restriction that denies federal funds for abortions and requires women to purchase separate abortion coverage. The groups would also like to see a reversal of the administration’s refusal to grant unrestricted over-the-counter status to the “emergency contraceptive” Plan B, as well as a once-and-for-all repudiation of the Bush-era “conscience clause,” which allows healthcare providers (including pharmacists) to deny women contraceptives at will. Even with a historic twenty women now in the Senate and twenty newly pro-choice seats in the House, it’s hard to imagine the 113th Congress revisiting the thirty-six-year-old Hyde Amendment, but it’s the single move that would make a significant difference for the most women because female poverty is up.
According to the National Women’s Law Center in its study of the 2010 Census, the poverty rate among women climbed from 13.9 percent in 2009 to 14.5 percent in 2010—the highest in seventeen years. The extreme poverty rate among women climbed to 6.3 percent, the highest rate ever recorded (with extreme poverty meaning an income below half the federal poverty line of approximately $22,000 for a family of four). The few studies ever done in this area show that lesbian couples and their families are much more likely to be poor than their heterosexual counterparts. Overall, in 2010, 17 million women lived in poverty, including more than 7.5 million in extreme poverty. The number of women younger than 65 without healthcare coverage increased to 19 million, or 19.7 percent, the highest in more than a decade.
Studies by Ibis Reproductive Health, a research group, show that even those women on Medicaid who are legally entitled to an abortion can rarely get their insurance to cover it. According to the Guttmacher Institute, one out of every four women enrolled in Medicaid who would otherwise choose abortion has to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term because she can’t get Medicaid to pay and can’t cover the out-of-pocket cost herself. At least 200,000 women every year, according to the National Network of Abortion Funds, seek financial help paying for “choice.”
Around the states, while national polls show that most Americans support birth control and oppose the criminalization of abortion, the last two years have seen a historic spike in restrictions on abortion services. As The Nation’s editors recently noted, “87 percent of US counties lack an abortion provider, and several states have only a clinic or two staffed by a doctor who flies in from another state.” After the Republicans’ Tea Party–fueled victories in the 2010 midterms, state legislatures introduced more bills with reproduction-related provisions in 2011 than ever before: a total of 1,100 provisions, of which 135 were passed by the end of that year.