During the annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, held in March 2005 in New York, American women were reminded just how far they haven't come. During a 10-year progress review following the Fourth World Conference on Women (held in Beijing in 1995), it was clear that - paraphrasing poet Robert Frost - we have miles to go before we sleep.
Women in the US have a great deal to be concerned about as they look ahead to action needed to preserve ground, and to move forward in recognizing that women's rights are human rights, and that 'Equality, Development and Peace', the themes of the 1995 conference in China, are still a long way from reality.
It is shocking for American women to realize that at the Beijing+10 meeting, the US stood alone (but for the Vatican) in trying to insert anti-abortion language into a document signed in 1995 by more than 180 nations, recognizing women's right to productive health in all its ramifications. Huge amounts of time and energy were expended by the American government's delegation, headed by right-winger Ellen Sauerbrey, Maryland's former anti-choice state legislator, trying to reverse gains made during the UN Decade for Women and its subsequent 1995 conference. This valuable time should have been used to move forward an agenda aimed at reducing maternal mortality, educating girls, treating HIV/AIDS victims, stopping trafficking in women and girls, and so much more.
But it isn't just Beijing+10 that should worry women in America. There is much more happening that is deeply troubling. For example, church groups are now fundraising to buy sonogram equipment for Christian crisis pregnancy centers. The hope is that ultrasound can be used to dissuade women from terminating their pregnancies. Focus on the Family, a Christian organization, has already budgeted more than $4 million for the machines, each of which cost about $25,000. India is an example how medical technology gets used against women - ultrasound machines have been instrumental in the rising cases of abortions of female fetuses in that country.
Then there's the Democratic Party leadership. It's all well and good for Hillary Rodham Clinton to call for "common ground" and dialogue around the abortion issue, but that's a pretty slippery slope. In their search for a middle ground, Democrats are retreating from a fundamental issue that requires a strong and unequivocal position. They cannot - they must not - barter with women's bodies. Clinton and Howard Dean, who now heads the Democratic National Committee, as well as self-professed abortion opponent Harry Reid (minority leader in the Senate), cannot speak out of both sides of their mouths at the same time. Either they represent women or they don't. So why are they trying to recalibrate the party's position on the abortion issue? Why did they recruit at least two abortion opponents to run for the Senate in 2006? Why ask Robert Casey, Jr., of Pennsylvania, a real foe of abortion rights, to challenge ultra-conservative Senator Rick Santorum?
Where will these elected officials stand on the crisis facing women in Kansas? That's where the attorney general has demanded that abortion clinics turn over the complete medical records of nearly 100 women and girls, ostensibly to investigate underage sex but really to snoop around for illegal late-term abortions. This secret investigation surfaced in October 2004, but only after legal briefs were filed on behalf of two medical clinics that were trying to protect patient confidentiality. Where will they be if, and more likely when, abortion becomes a states' rights issue?
According to a February (2005) article by Eleanor Bader in Z Magazine, if Roe vs Wade (the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the US) is overturned - as may well happen when Bush gets to appoint a Supreme Court justice - all federal protections for reproductive choice will be granted to state authority and states will establish their own abortion policies. Many states already have punishments in place that would impose jail time and large fines for anyone guilty of aiding a woman in search of an abortion.
There are other concerns as well. Title IX, a section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that ensures women's equality in education and guarantees them equality in education-based sports programmes, could be weakened substantially by this administration. The minimum wage battle, which affects women even more than men because they often work at the lowest paid hourly rates, goes on. Equality and development seem more elusive than ever for many American women.
American women live complex and varied lives. Their needs are also complex and varied. They come from different classes, ethnicities and traditions. Some choose not to have children at all, or to have them at particular times in their lives. Some work outside the home whether they have kids or not, for economic, psychological and intellectual reasons. There is no "typical" American woman, no consensus on her experience.
The "Third Wave" of young feminists knows this. That's why its women are so committed to options and choice, and to ensuring that they don't lose the hard-fought gains achieved by their mothers. That is why American women need, in these dangerous times, to look forward as well as back. Beijing+10. Bush+10. And beyond. Because, like it or not, the feminist slogan of the 1970s was never more salient: "The personal is political". What happens to one woman happens to all women. And what happens to one subset - by virtue of its gender, age, ability, sexual orientation, happens to all. When we sacrifice one group of people, we sacrifice all people. It's as simple - and as scary - as that.