When the Bush administration extended a Department of Health and Human Services regulation undermining patients' access to critical health care services in the waning days of its administration, women were quick to act. The National Organization for Women and the National Women's Law Center were among many groups that organized online petitions and other actions against an eleventh-hour rule broadening laws that allowed health care providers, hospitals and insurance companies to deny access to vital health services because of religious restrictions.
Similarly, when the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services added a vaccination against HPV--the sexually transmitted viral infection associated with cervical cancer--to their list of required vaccinations for immigrant women and girls ages 11 to 26 seeking to adjust their immigration status or apply for visas, women's advocacy organizations sounded the alarm. The requirement, they said, violates a woman's right to informed consent and creates additional barriers for immigrant families. The cost of the vaccination, requiring three injections, is at least $360; for a family with several females in the required age range the cost could be over $1,000. Further, side effects are being investigated by the manufacturers of the vaccine called Gardasil. Other concerns include using immigrant women as research subjects and the fact that no other vaccination requirement is gender-specific.
Now women's organizations are eagerly accepting the Obama administration's invitation to dialogue on a number of issues, including health care reform, in order to inform policy. One of those groups is Raising Women's Voices, a collaborative initiative of the Avery Institute for Social Change, the Merger Watch Project of Community Catalyst and the National Women's Health Network. It has convened a series of teleconferences among women's health providers, educators and advocates to propose specific recommendations to the Obama team. They are calling for affordable, accessible, quality care throughout the lifespan for all women across socio-economic groups as well as an end to exclusion from insurance coverage based on pre-existing conditions. They seek improved access to a wide array of reproductive health care services, more preventative services, culturally competent care and increased mental health services.
The National Council for Research on Women has launched a Big Five Campaign to help the Obama administration address economic security, immigration, violence, education and health, all critical to the lives of women and girls, particularly if they are poor, immigrant, or women of color. They are making specific policy recommendations ranging from providing incentives to low-income mothers so they can attend college to promulgating legislation that guards against the separation of immigrant parents and their children. They also address the ways in which women are particularly affected as the country works toward economic recovery.
The National Women's Studies Association (NWSA) has called for the establishment of a Federal Department of Women's Affairs similar to those already in existence in countries like India, New Zealand and Zimbabwe. "Too often," says Executive Director Allison Kimmich, "the U.S. lags behind in global gender equity indicators such as freedom from sexual violence, humane treatment for women in prison and promoting sexual autonomy and reproductive choice."
Marie Wilson of The White House Project which aims to put more women in elective office wants to see a Presidential Commission on Women and Democracy. "The issues that women care about have been mainstay challenges of American politics," she says. "Instead of tackling these issues in a piecemeal fashion, the Obama administration would be well advised to get to the root of the problem."
Others have called for a cabinet level Office of Maternal Health and a Title IX Task Force within the Department of Justice focused on enforcement, civil litigation, and auditing of compliance with the law that requires equal opportunity across the board at all colleges and universities receiving federal funds.
"The president must focus not [only] on what is missing but what gets emphasized," says Chris Grumm, President of The Women's Funding Network. "His campaign focused on the middle class but that focus must widen to include those with low to no income. They must be as important as the middle class because they are critical to our society's health."
These examples are tip of the iceberg when it comes to women's analysis and strategic thinking about ways in which the new administration can address the myriad challenges ahead. In all the years I've worked on social justice issues, I've never heard more cogent thinking than that which comes from a roomful of women giving testimony, deconstructing models that fail, designing new alternatives. As women increase their numbers at the tables of decision-making I grow ever more hopeful that change is possible as Barack Obama, and all of us, tackle the big issues of our time.