Nan Austin

Women’s well-being at stake in Congress votes, campaign legacy

A woman holds up her cellphone before a September rally for presidential candidate Donald Trump in Bedford, N.H. It seems like a good time to consider what lasting effect this electoral turn might have on women in the U.S.
A woman holds up her cellphone before a September rally for presidential candidate Donald Trump in Bedford, N.H. It seems like a good time to consider what lasting effect this electoral turn might have on women in the U.S. Associated Press file

The presidential election touched both the highest hopes and the lowest bar in discussions of women. With the election rhetoric past, yet still ringing in our ears, it seems like a good time to consider what lasting effect this electoral turn might have on females, who nationwide make up 76 percent of teachers, 80 percent of single parents and, of course, 50 percent of students.

First, concerns about attitudes. In the heat of the campaign, the lewd, crude comments of Donald Trump as a 59-year-old got endlessly replayed. Few teen girls likely missed seeing our president-elect talking about his desire for beautiful women and practice of grabbing them without permission.

“Policies are important, but so is the culture. The culture that’s being created and the line of what’s acceptable is what’s changing so dramatically,” said Irenee Beattie, an associate professor of sociology at University of California, Merced.

It will take time to see if the raucous rally behavior and campaign trail trashings become statistics showing more assaults on women, she said, but individual stories are piling up.

“It does create a license for people who hold antiquated views of women,” she said. “On the other hand, it’s really empowered a lot of people to speak out. There’s a flip side to this.”

While sexism still existed beneath the surface, visible in glass ceilings and lower wages for women, the Trump campaign brought it out in the open, Beattie said. “It’s helping people find their voice because it’s so egregious.”

To be sure, loutish behavior is nothing new. More than 1 in 4 women (27 percent) nationwide report being subjected to unwanted sexual contact, such as being groped, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found in 2010. The survey also found nearly 18 percent of women in the United States have been raped.

Pioneered by peer counselors at Enochs High, Modesto City Schools has made healthy relationships a component of its required high school health classes. The Enochs Healthy And Responsible Relationships Troop presentations help students spot the red flags in abusive dates, and learn how to avoid risky situations and how to talk through difficult topics with a loved one.

Besides cultural concerns, the next administration’s policy proposals also hold minefields for women, from ending a tax break for single parents to congressional plans put forward to cut or privatize Medicare and Social Security.

Women typically outlive men, meaning cuts to senior entitlements disproportionately fall on them, Beattie pointed out.

With Republican majorities again seated in both houses, Congress has signaled it will change pace from glacial to lightning fast. The Senate will hold a raft of confirmation hearings this week – Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos is one of five on Wednesday – as well as a “vote-a-rama,” to race through dozens of decisions on amendments. Final confirmations will be by the full Senate later.

The repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which both houses of Congress say is a top priority, should come shortly. The date the repeal will take effect remains a question, as does the timeline for any form of replacement legislation.

The period between repeal and replace will a rough ride for low-income families who will be hard hit by the loss of birth control and preventive care coverage guaranteed under Obamacare. Health care advocates are advising women to get IUDs, a birth control implant that typically lasts for years, in place before their coverage ends.

Coverage for children’s vaccines may also come under fire in the Trump administration, which on Tuesday announced creation of a committee on “vaccine safety and scientific integrity.” The committee will be led by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., described as an anti-vaccine activist.

A 2014 tweet by Trump blames vaccines for children getting autism, suggesting he falls in the anti-vaccine camp. Vigorous scientific efforts have failed to find any link between vaccines and autism, and other countries that began using the same vaccine saw autism cases decline. But symptoms of the wide spectrum of conditions often first appear around the time children are vaccinated, and the theory has passionate supporters.

Parents refusing to vaccinate their children have led to a resurgence of potentially deadly diseases, and California tightened its school vaccination laws in response. Those state precautions will not be affected by federal changes, but how poor families pay for them might.

The largest provider of low-cost women’s health care in the nation is the century-old nonprofit Planned Parenthood, under particular fire from GOP legislators – a rare congressional focus on a single company. Paying for abortions has already been eliminated from any federal coverage or subsidy. Defunding Planned Parenthood would end Medicaid payments for routine health services such as pap smears and breast cancer screenings.

“Research shows being near to a Planned Parenthood clinic has all these benefits, like adolescent girls have higher rates of high school completion. There are these cascading effects,” Beattie said adding, “The services they provide are likely to reduce the incidence of abortion.”

Despite the GOP focus on saving unborn children, congressional gridlock held up critical funding for seven months to fight the Zika virus, known to cause severe and possibly fatal birth defects.

Funding requested in February was granted in September. The virus arrived in Florida in July. To date, 4,835 people in the United States have been infected with the virus, including 1,291 pregnant women. By CDC count, 875 women have given birth, 36 of their babies born with birth defects, and five babies have died.

The fight over Zika funding focused first on Republican demands to defund Planned Parenthood as part of the package, and later on Democrat insistence on funding to remove lead from tapwater in Flint, Mich. Ironically, NPR reported, it was Planned Parenthood that paid to send people door to door in the poorest Miami neighborhoods while Congress bickered, giving out information on Zika, condoms and mosquito repellent.

Health of the mother also figures in discussions of access to care. The maternal mortality rate, the number of women dying by causes directly related to pregnancy or childbirth, has dropped dramatically worldwide over the past 25 years – but not here. The U.S. rate has risen from 12 to 14 deaths per 100,000 pregnancies in that time, according to the World Bank, among the highest in the developed world and double the rate of neighboring Canada.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributes this partly to rising numbers of pregnant women with underlying health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes or heart disease – chronic diseases for which access to health care makes all the difference.

How the next four years will play out for the nation’s better half, to use an antiquated phrase, remains to be seen.

“It will take time to know the concrete effects. … Right now it’s a lot of guessing,” Beattie said, “But the larger point is, it’s important to think both about policies and the culture. You can’t separate the two.”

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin