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They got mad when Donald Trump was elected president, turning out in the millions worldwide to protest the ascension of a man who bragged about being able to use his fame to sexually assault women without consequence. They got madder when they saw Trump name cabinet officials opposed to some of the legal protections women’s groups fought for many years to achieve. They got madder still when they saw Trump – without the fanfare and camera flashes associated with his other regulatory changes – roll back protections for women in the workplace.|
Now, female activists are trying to get even – or at least get to an America where opportunities and power-sharing between men and women is closer to even. After the shock of Trump’s election and the buoyant call-to-arms of the Women’s March on Washington, the women and girls who participated in the marches are mounting what Noreen Farrell, executive director of Equal Rights Advocates, defines as an epic and historic battle.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that President Trump presents the biggest threat to women’s progress we’ve seen in the last 50 years,” says Farrell, whose San Francisco-based group works for equal protection for women in law, in schools and in the workplace. “Some of it is under the radar, and some of it is right in front of us. But what’s happening at the federal level is not only terrifying. It’s an outrage,” she says.
“It’s hard to think of an agenda more dangerous to women than the one this administration is pushing through,” adds Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, which raises money for Democratic, pro-abortion rights female candidates. “Trump has made his top priority as president crystal clear – rolling back the clock on women’s rights.”
In the less than three months Trump has been president, the new commander-in-chief has made decisions, policies and comments that have agitated (and motivated) female activists. In a New York Times interview, he volunteered his view that Fox News host Bill O’Reilly should not have settled in a case that had $13 million in payments going to five women who accused O’Reilly of sexual harassment. “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong,” Trump told the paper – bizarrely inviting comparisons to his own comments, uncovered during the campaign, that he can “grab ‘em [women] by the pussy” without retaliation because he was a reality TV star.
Trump re-imposed the so-called global gag rule, following the lead of past Republican presidents, requiring that any overseas organization receiving U.S. aid not engage in any abortion-related activities – including even discussing the option in a country where the procedure is legal, and even when a woman asks about it. While not all women favor abortion rights, family planning groups argue that the rule weakens organizations that don’t perform abortions, but provide essential reproductive and women’s health services. President Ronald Reagan installed the rule in 1984, and since then, it has been lifted by Democratic presidents and re-imposed by GOP Oval Office occupants.
Domestically, Trump is going further than previous GOP presidents, working with congressional Republicans to defund Planned Parenthood, which receives about $500 million in federal funds annually and which provides, in addition to abortion services, gynecological and reproductive care for women and girls. The organization, in its annual reports, says about three percent of its services are abortion-related. Trump floated the idea of backing off his threat to defund the organization if they give up entirely on providing abortions, but Planned Parenthood, which they say is the only logistically and financially available option for women who are poor or in rural counties, rejected the idea.
On Thursday, Trump signed legislation to reverse Obama administration rules banning states from denying funds to Planned Parenthood and other health centers that provide abortions. The Obama administration installed the rule in the waning days of his presidency - a "parting gift to the abortion industry," as Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, called it.
The move to defund Planned Parenthood domestically represents a new level of opposition to the group, even for GOP presidents. Title X family planning funding began under President Richard Nixon. And while former President George W. Bush re-imposed the "gag rule" for international family planning funding, he did not go after Planned Parenthood in the U.S., refusing, when asked in 1999, to sign a pledge to defund the group.
Where Trump has been unable thus far to win legislative changes, he has rolled back protections through regulation. In late March, Trump revoked the 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order. That Obama administration rule had required that federal contractors comply with 14 labor and civil rights laws, including fair pay rules. The Obama order had also banned forced arbitration for workers alleging sexual harassment. Mandating arbitration, which contractors are now free to do, not only may limit the justice victims may receive, Farrell says, but protects the companies from bad press, since settlements in forced arbitration often have a non-disclosure policy attached.
Trump’s cabinet has drawn ire as well from female activists – both because of the lack of gender diversity and because of the positions several have taken on matters involving women’s rights, reproductive rights and equality. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, in her confirmation hearings, showed little commitment to protections for transgender students in schools, and made no commitment to continuing Obama-era rules meant to increase reporting of sexual assault at educational institutions, notes Fatima Goss Graves, president-elect of the National Women’s Law Center.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price opposes abortion, as well as a contraception coverage mandate under Obamacare and opposed a 2015 District of Columbia non-discrimination law that would have prevented employers from firing women for using birth control or having an abortion.
Advocates worry about what’s to come, both in the courts and in legislation. Congressional Republicans are still trying to come up with a replacement for the Affordable Care Act, and some are arguing that the new law should get rid of “essential benefits,” including maternity care. Adding to the ire of women’s groups, Vice President Mike Pence tweeted out a White House photo of Trump negotiating the health care legislation with Capitol Hill lawmakers. Everyone in the photo is male.
Looking ahead, advocates are worried about what the Trump administration will do about legal cases wending their way through the court system. The administration already dropped the Obama Justice Department’s effort to fight a federal court ruling against equal bathroom access for transgender students. And an HHS website has mysteriously removed language noting that the ACA bans sex discrimination, says Graves, whose group has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to learn why. A number of cases involving insurance coverage for contraception or other reproductive rights matters are likely to reach the Supreme Court, she notes – and the presence of newly-sworn in Justice Neil Gorsuch means such mandates are imperiled, she says.
And while there is not now a case in front of the high court outright challenging the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, “we can also absolutely expect to see states passing a series of laws that directly contravene Roe v. Wade, undermining it and restricting access to lawful abortion,” Graves adds. “I can imagine that those lawmakers will be emboldened by the conformation of Gorsuch.”
Democratic women, too, have been emboldened by Trump. Susan Platt, a longtime political aide and business leader, says she woke up the day after the election completely dispirited, barely able to digest the result. She turned her disappointment into action, marching in the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration. And the following day, she announced her candidacy for lieutenant governor in Virginia, a state that has never had a female in either the governor’s or lieutenant governor’s role.
“Suddenly, we were looking at the bullier-in-chief,” Platt says of Trump. And “it’s not just women who are concerned about their rights. It’s everyone who’s not a billionaire. Who will be the next victim of his ire?” she adds. Platt says she still encounters sexism on the trail, including from male Democratic officials who say she doesn’t have enough experience, despite having worked for then-Sen. Joe Biden and other officials.
But she says she has also been approached by women running for state legislative offices in Virginia, and “a number of them said [Platt’s candidacy] gave them the courage to run for delegate,” she adds.
EMILY’s List is finding that trend to be playing out nationwide. During the 2016 campaign, about 1,000 women approached the group asking for guidance and support running for office, more than 10,000 women in all 50 states and the District of Columbia have inquired about running for office since Trump was elected, officials say. Nearly two-thirds of the 500 women who attended a “Getting Ready to Run” training session the day after the women’s march were under 45. And some traveled from as far away as California.
The demand for a louder female voice and gender equality is increasing in state legislatures, as well. Lawmakers in at least 40 states have introduced fair pay legislation, according to Carolyn Fiddler of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
At the grassroots level, women say they are turning their anger into action – and starting very young. Elizabeth Payne, a Brooklynite who brought her 7-year-old daughter, Avery, to the Washington, D.C. women’s march, has kept up the activism since she returned home that weekend. She is volunteering more, she says, and is thinking of running for office in a couple of years.
And Avery? Wearing her knit, pink women’s march hat, the girl attends organizing sessions with her mother, where residents talk about maintaining civil rights and equal rights in the era of Trump. The girl is reading children’s books about the civil rights movement and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “She calls herself a feminist,” Payne says. “The word ‘dissent’ is in her vocabulary. ‘Resist’ is in her vocabulary.” And the likes of Avery, women’s advocates hope, are what’s ahead of them, even as they battle the ways of Trump.