Women at the centre of US elections

The upcoming US presidential election is making news all over the world. As a Canadian living between the United Kingdom and South America, the debates are of enormous interest to me – despite the fact whoever wins the election won’t be my president.  They are captivating for a great number of reasons, not least of which being that I am a woman.

The election revolves heavily around ‘social’ issues and the corresponding public policies that will directly impact women (and make no mistake about it – men as well). These include equal access to employment and rights to equal pay; access to quality, affordable healthcare; the regulation of women’s bodies, reproductive health, and freedom of choice in relation to contraceptives and abortion – even what constitutes rape. ‘Women’ are everywhere in the debates.  We are featured alongside the why’s and what-now’s of the ailing economy and over and above the war in Afghanistan.

I’m captivated even as I struggle to understand the reasons why this is the case-  didn’t ‘developed’ nations figure out long ago that social and economic equality and right to healthcare and decision-making over reproductive issues were key to prosperous, healthy, sustainable communities?

Women’s issues are treated as a subset of ‘social issues,’ and are scoffed at by those who assert they are a distraction from more important and serious debates around the economy, job creation, and high unemployment. This view is erroneous. Women’s reproductive freedom, right to equal pay for equal work, and access to quality healthcare are very much economic issues, and are directly related to what it means to be a developed country.

Women in the US are tuned into the debates as well. By now we’ve all heard about the ‘gender gap’ in pre-election polls – more women seem to favour the Democratic platform of President Obama over that of Republican candidate Mitt Romney – and in considerable numbers.  Let’s be clear about something – this isn’t about the old colour-of-the-tie psychology theory.  What is interesting is what these numbers can tell us, particularly when they are broken down. For example, among the female democratic supporters are women of colour, immigrant women, single mothers, and low-income women.  So what is the story behind the numbers?

Women know what they need. There are 46.2 million women, or 15.1% of the population, living in poverty in the United States (notably, there are 4 million more poor women than men). Social services such as those provided by Planned Parenthood (access to birth control, non-judgemental abortion, and gynecological exams), food stamp programmes, and state assistance in caring for children and the disabled (work that women overwhelmingly do) are imperative for women and their families living in poverty. In part, President Obama’s numbers are boosted by those women lacking equal access to employment and who are  directly impacted by the fact that women still only make 77 cents to every dollar (and women of colour 61 cents to every dollar) that men make. Women’s issues are as much economic as they are social. Any woman wanting to limit the number of children she bears, that struggles to feed her family, or is unable to make ends meet in a low-paying job can tell you that.

A great deal of women clearly know what is at stake on a personal level in this election. The gender gap in the polls makes a lots of sense to me – it’s the impetus behind the debates that does not. Have the big guys in power suits forgotten what being a developed country involves?

There is no one universal or concrete definition for a developed country. What constitutes ‘developed’ is highly contested, and definitions vary according to the weight placed on different social, economic and political indicators.  While it lags behind in some indicators, gender equality being one of them, the US is considered a developed country – and indeed one that invests in promoting development in other countries. Considering the differing perspectives and definitions, I think it is safe to look to the UN Millenium Development Goals for guidance on some of the characteristics of a developed country. These would indicate one that is free from poverty and hunger, and with universal access to education, for a start. It would also have gender equality, excellent child and maternal health, and would have universal healthcare provision. Countries where women have particularly low status and little access to social, economic and reproductive rights often fall into the ‘developing’ or ‘less developed’ category.

Public policies that work towards sustainable development would support women’s access to reproductive health services, such as information on family planning, safe contraceptives and abortions, and pre- and post-natal care. They would also ensure universal access to healthcare regardless of your position as a CEO, a student, or a janitor. They would promote women receiving the same pay that men did for the same work, and also the same access to employment – which might include provision of childcare services so that single or low-income mothers could engage in paid employment outside of the house. Women suffer, as do their families and communities, when they are not supported via inclusive policies. One need only look at international statistics on maternal mortality, domestic violence, and female illiteracy – as well as what happens when women’s rights are upheld – to understand this.

Considering that these are the types of policies that have immediate relevance for low-income women, and within this group a disproportionate number of women of colour, single mothers, and immigrant women, it’s no wonder that female support is markedly greater for one party’s platform than that of the other. Feminists have insisted that ‘the personal is political’  since the 1960s and 70s – a statement with continued relevance today. Women are engaged in these elections because the outcome will have direct, tangible, every-day impacts on their lives. My fascination with the US presidential election stems partly from a morbid curiosity – I just can’t wrap my head around why a ‘developed’ country would retract the policies that helped propel it towards that coveted status in the first place. The election will show whether a majority of American women feel the same.

*Tara Cookson [2011] is doing a PhD in Geography on the effects of the more recent post-neoliberal policy shifts on women’s lives as carers within the Latin American region, focusing specifically on those policies that seek to ’empower’ women and alleviate poverty. Picture credit: Claus Simonsen and Creative Commons. This article was first published on Sense and Sustainability.

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Gender, development and structural change

Poverty is by no means a new issue – but the ways in which it is tackled by international, state and non-governmental actors are constantly evolving. Especially since the 1970s, women have been recognised as playing an important role in development. On a global scale, gender equality and female empowerment are recognised as pathways to achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals.

Women feature as the primary actors in many poverty alleviation initiatives and are usually portrayed as responsible, caring, and more likely to invest in household well being than their male counterparts. Microfinance – or the provision of credit to poor women for the purposes of entrepreneurial activity – is perhaps the most visible and well-known example of this kind of development thinking and practice.

Women are targeted in other major development programmes as well. One of the fastest growing initiatives to address poverty is the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT). CCTs are based on notions of investment and responsibility. Small monthly cash payments, usually around US$35, are given explicitly to poor mothers, who then must meet certain conditions like ensuring their kids have a high rate of school attendance and regular health checks. Mothers are often required to participate in sexual health, nutrition and hygiene classes, as well as ‘voluntary’ community cleanups. A lot of this is work based on providing care. Failure to meet the conditions results in expulsion from the programme, as also happens if household income goes above the threshold. Women are specifically targeted in CCTs, and men excluded (similarly to most microfinance initiatives).

CCTs are applauded by the World Bank, governments and policy experts across the globe as an economical and efficient way to improve child welfare. Started in the mid-nineties in Brazil and Mexico, whose programmes cover 12.9 million and 5.8 million families respectively, CCTs are currently in 17 of 20 Latin American countries, with regional ‘experts’ travelling to offer consulting services for start-up CCTs in Africa, Southeast Asia and even New York.

It is important, however, not to celebrate and reproduce gendered programmes like CCTs uncritically. By ‘gendered’ I refer to the way in which such programmes are structured upon the differences between and among women and men, and the different assumptions we have of what men and women do and are like. CCTs, like microfinance, reflect ideas about poor men and women and what they do – for example, men spend money on themselves and in bars, while women can be relied upon to spend money and time on their children. While statistically these stereotypes may hold some truth, a critical gender analysis probes deeper, asking why men and women allocate resources differently.

In the case of CCTs, looking at gendered impacts involves investigating what happens when men are excluded from a development programme based on responsibility for children’s welfare. It prompts questions about impacts on women’s own well being and opportunities to be conceived of as individuals with rights and responsibilities outside of their roles as mothers. This kind of critical questioning highlights– and works to dismantle – structures and patterns of gender inequality that are harmful and easily reproduced. What are the structures in place that have 12.9 million families in Brazil unable to keep their kids well fed and in school? What factors contribute to unequal patterns of male and female likelihood to invest money and time in familial well being? Once identified, we can ask: How might we change these?

The widespread implementation of CCT programmes attests to the recognition that poverty can be alleviated through providing care and that women play crucial roles in the development of healthy families and communities. However, programmes that promise better lives for children without working to change harmful patterns of gender (and other) inequality are not likely to bring about meaningful change for the future. Researchers, proponents and critics of poverty alleviation initiatives need to ask: What are the broader impacts of designing development initiatives according to gendered assumptions and stereotypes? What opportunities are constrained or missed for creating sustainable initiatives that impact children, men, and women – equally?

 *Tara Cookson is a Gates Cambridge Scholar and is doing a PhD in Geography. She is critically exploring the effects of the more recent post-neoliberal policy shifts on women’s lives as carers within the Latin American region, focusing specifically on those policies that seek to ’empower’ women and alleviate poverty. Photo credit: Tom Shanklin and Creative Commons.