The gender gap election

Bill Clinton may have successfully wooed the women's vote, but American feminists believe he did little to deserve it, writes Anna Marie Smith
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Bill Clinton's spin doctors claim he won re-election as President of the United States last week by turning the gender gap to his advantage. And British commentators have been wondering since if Tony Blair will be able to perform the same trick by following his lead.

No one disputes the size of the US "gender gap". Polls show that women backed Clinton over Dole by 54 to 38 per cent, while men split their vote almost evenly, 43 to 44 per cent. Many leading feminists nevertheless contend that Clinton has betrayed their trust.

Clinton did pass the Violence Against Women Act and the ban on assault weapons. He claims credit for passing the family leave act, but this legislation provided only for unpaid time off work, and his increase in the minimum wage still leaves a family of four under the poverty line. It is true that he vetoed the ban on late-term abortions and made pro-choice judicial appointments; however, access to abortion for most women remains a serious problem.

Clinton appointed several women and minorities to his administration, but whenever the going got tough for his women nominees and officials, he cut them loose. Hillary's role has been reduced to that of a biscuit- baking hostess and women close to the president have remarked that he strongly prefers a traditional male working environment.

In his 1992 campaign, Clinton promised to support gay rights. In office, however, he capitulated on gays in the military, gave no power to his Aids "czar", declared that children should only be raised by married heterosexual couples and signed a bill that allows states to ban gay marriages.

Feminists became especially disenchanted in August, when Clinton signed the welfare bill. This act reverses 60 years of welfare reform. Where the poor used to have a right to federal assistance, now they will have to rely on their states' generosity. New limits have been imposed: no welfare recipient will be able to receive benefit after two years, or for more than five years during their lifetime. Meanwhile, unemployment stands at 7 million and there are 14 applicants for every job in a fast food restaurant. The welfare bill makes no provision for job creation, job training or child care. Experts say that compared with all the other western countries, the US already does the least for the poor, and has the largest gap between the rich and the poor. Two out of three adults living in poverty are women and 44 per cent of single mothers remain below the poverty line.

The American child poverty rate is four times greater than the average for the EU countries. The new welfare provisions alone will throw a million more children into poverty by 2001. If a Republican president had endorsed the welfare repeal, feminists would have taken to the streets.

Some feminists have tried to put a positive spin on the situation. Gloria Steinem, of Ms Magazine, claimed that Clinton had to sign the welfare bill to win the election, and that he would undo the damage during his second term. But polling data shows that Clinton's solid lead over a Republican nominee remained virtually constant for the 13 months leading up to the election - and he vetoed two other welfare bills during that period. Some of the Democrats who were up for re-election in the House and the Senate voted against the welfare bill and then easily won their races. And welfare experts, including the moderate Democrat Senator Patrick Moynihan, have declared that Clinton will not be able to reverse the new law's elimination of welfare rights.

If Clinton has proved to be less than reliable on women's issues, then how did the gender gap emerge? Image is almost everything in American politics. Only half the eligible voting population makes the trip to the voting booth, and only a tiny minority of the voters can name the actual policies of the two main parties.

Clinton appealed to women through his use of "caring and sharing" symbolic gestures. Women voters are less likely to view the budget deficit as a priority, and they are more likely than men to support education spending, affirmative action, gay rights, health-care reform and welfare programmes. Clinton did not deliver his promised job creation scheme or health-care reform, and did little to enhance the education system. But he put more police on the beat, floated a proposal for school uniforms, and spoke out against teenage smoking and violence on television.

Above all, Clinton is an extremely skillful politician. As he shifted to the right, feminists found themselves backed into a corner. Having either pledged their firm support to Clinton early on, accepted a government appointment, or won election on his coat-tails, they felt that they could not voice their opposition.

And so Marion Wright Edelman, of the Children's Defence Fund, said nothing in public when the welfare bill was passed. Patricia Ireland, of the National Organisation of Women, was reduced to saying that she would vote for Clinton but would not campaign for him. The Americans who bothered to watch the Democratic Convention never saw feminist dissent; it was only allowed outside prime time, in unofficial venues. Socialist feminists, such as Zillah Eisenstein, Katha Pollitt, Barbara Ehrenreich and Frances Fox Piven, launched a full-scale critique of Clinton's policies but their voices were only heard in America's minuscule alternative media.

None of Clinton's feminist critics preferred Dole. But many are saying that there was very little difference between Clinton and Dole, and that the feminist movement must reconstruct its political autonomy so that it can vigorously oppose every assault on women's rights - including Clinton's.

The writer is an assistant professor in the department of government at Cornell University in New York State.