Women's Future: Who Will Decide?

by Ellen J. Wight | 11/22/95 6:00am

Women's Future: Who Decides?" That was the title of the program sponsored last Saturday by the Institute for Women & Social Change, an event which called a group of women from the Upper Valley together to participate in an exiting, thought-provoking discussion about the challenges facing women today. Unfortunately, the women who weren't present on Saturday -- the women of Dartmouth -- may not realize how crucial it is that they help make that decision. Granted, it's a crazy time of the term, but Arnie Arnesen, New Hampshire's first women gubernatorial candidate, had a point when she proclaimed that there were no Dartmouth women in the audience this weekend "because they don't have a clue what's happening" beyond their campus.

What is happening is an anti-female revolution in Congress. Women's interests are most at stake in budget cuts; women will be the most devastated by them. Why? Because who are America's old and poor? Women. They are also the primary child care-givers, but their entitlements are the ones which will be threatened if block grants to states replace direct federal funding. Welfare will become the logical place for states to make cuts. In effect, the government is trying to "deficit reduce on the backs of the poor and women."

The debate over welfare has been obscured. Welfare has been "feminized;" we've come to think of it in terms of pregnant welfare mothers, irresponsible women who can't control their own sexuality. But as Government Professor Linda Fowler stated on Saturday, "it takes more than one person to be irresponsible sexually or promiscuous." Only about 20 percent of men who acknowledge illegitimate children give them financial support. Instead of blaming women, we should be instituting programs to find deadbeat dads.

Other entitlement programs are cast as ways to insure against risk in our society. Why shouldn't we insure against bad marriages, against the risk that unwanted children are born to women without the means to care for them? These are risks just as illness is a risk. We need to find welfare policies that don't blame America's economic insecurity on welfare moms.

Legislators know what welfare is really about: Most women need it only temporarily when their lives have been disrupted. But we talk about it in terms that stigmatize women because women are not framing the debate. As Professor Fowler pointed out, we women are not holding elected offices in this country, we don't use our substantial economic power to command respect and we haven't constructed a women's agenda.

The term "women's agenda" is a dangerous one, of course. I need to qualify it because gender is just one of many centers of power in our society. Other issues affect us too. Racism affects us all. Homophobia affects us all. And as is evident on this campus, all women aren't concerned with the same issues; different women identify with different causes. Minority women often see a very understandable need to consolidate their own forces first and work within their own communities before they can deal with more general "women's issues."

Clearly, we represent a variety of points of view, but there are imperatives for organizing as women. Welfare should make this obvious. Money isn't a man's issue; welfare isn't just a women's issue, but that is the way things will stand until we mobilize to get more women into public office. We should push for campaign finance reform because we have to get money out of the picture to get women in. Arnesen stated, "money keeps what's in power there, and what's there doesn't look like us."

As a member of Saturday's student panel put it, the women of Dartmouth are trying first to find their own voices and then to connect with other women. But we need to do more, to look beyond our campus and our own personal agendas. We have to educate ourselves about the economics of issues. If we consider ourselves feminists -- more than that -- if we're concerned at all about the status of women in America, we need to be advocates for the most vulnerable women. Those most affected by welfare cuts have no opportunity to make their voices heard. They must rely on the government for their security, and they must rely on the rest of us to be aware and present when decisions are being made. Women's future is our future, and we must be the ones to decide it.