When Gender Is Not Enough

Carolina Austria

Women political leaders in the Philippines are nothing new. But examining the close relationship of female Filipino leaders to the Catholic Church reveals that more than gender is required for progressive policies on reproductive health.

As a denizen of the developing
world, I too watch clips and coverage of the US elections with an avid
interest in the outcome. After all, whomever the American people elect
into office will determine the shape of US foreign
policy on a myriad of matters — not the least of which is reproductive
health assistance and aid to developing countries. But while the presidential
candidates usually get the lion’s share of the media coverage, compared
with their running mates, it does not seem to be the case in this race. 

While Barack Obama and John McCain are still getting coverage worthy of a presidential hopeful, it is
getting very hard not to notice the VP candidates now that the Republicans
set Sarah Palin loose upon us.  

In the Philippines (as well
as other countries in recent history), having a woman President (or
a candidate) is nothing new. Our first President after authoritarian
rule was Corazon Aquino, the widow of a popular
opposition Senator who was assassinated during the reign of Ferdinand
Marcos. Cory Aquino was a popular President and while many point out
her eight-year term was not perfect (especially her economic policies),
her rise to power was certainly memorable for many Filipinos. She led
the country at an historic moment when a dictatorship which ruled for
twenty years was toppled by a spontaneous and popular mass uprising
— a bloodless coup. A younger generation of Filipinos is not even
aware of it anymore, but twenty-one years ago, under military rule, dissent
was a very dangerous thing. Arguably, it is still dangerous today — but
so much has changed and in many ways, despite many threats, we still
have democratic room for dissent.  

Meanwhile, another President
who happens to be a woman is our current President, Gloria Macapagal
Arroyo. Like Cory Aquino, she rose to power when President Joseph Estrada
was ousted but the similarity ends there. Unlike Cory who challenged
the dictator in an election (which Marcos tried to rig), Macapagal was
a constitutional "successor in waiting" – then the Vice President. 

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On both occasions, the women’s
movements knew that having a woman as the President served an important
if not symbolic milestone for Filipino women’s political participation.
On the other hand, feminists were also keenly aware of these women’s
ties to the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy. Both of them professed
to be devout Catholics, though, to her credit, Corazon Aquino never imposed
her religious beliefs on the Filipino people.  

When the Catholic lobby’s
attempt to insert a total ban on contraceptives and abortion in the
1987 Constitution failed, the church lobbied for the President (who
was still exercising law making powers) to issue an Executive Order
instituting such a ban. While Cory may have shared the bishop’s Catholic
views on contraception, abortion and even marriage and procreation,
she apparently also respected the Philippine Constitution, which guaranteed
religious freedom and non-establishment. And while Aquino’s administration
preferred a focus on maternal health, the national average spending
on health was the highest it had ever been after Marcos.  

Then came Gloria Macapagal
Arroyo, daughter of a former President and classmate of Bill Clinton’s at Georgetown University. Armed with a Master’s degree and
a PhD. in economics, she became an academic, a cabinet member, elected Senator
and later, Vice President. By her own admission, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo
used to take birth control pills but without batting an eyelash, Arroyo
has also refused to fund access to modern family planning methods for
the rest of us. During
her eight years in office, she single handedly reversed past administration’s
reproductive health policies by supporting natural family planning to
the exclusion of all other methods and granting public money to a faith-based
organization to conduct the program
She has threatened to veto pending legislation on reproductive health
numerous times, even as the bill is gaining wide support in Congress. 

The point I am trying to make
is this: While it is about gender, not all of it depends on the
gender of the leader (or candidate) in question nor is it solely about
gender in isolation. When Corazon Aquino the widow was emerging as the
opposition’s likely standard-bearer, President Marcos, a lawyer and
bar-top-notcher, ridiculed the opposition saying, "Women only belong
in the kitchen and in the bedroom."   

We actually heard less of this
when Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was running for the Vice Presidency, mainly
because we already had Cory Aquino as President. Ironically, the most
popular Presidential candidate at that time was a high-school dropout
and an actor known for playing "tough guy" and "macho" roles,
a former Mayor turned Senator, Joseph Estrada. 

Gender matters because alongside
other social markers of status and identity (like race, class and ethnicity)
it is all too often also the marker of inequality and all of them overlap.
This is why even when a woman’s gender is usually a disadvantage;
in say for instance, a male dominated profession, a poor woman of color
will still be worse off.  

True, Sarah Palin is just as
likely as the next woman candidate to perhaps be the object of sexist
remarks and biases. This needs to be addressed. On the other hand, as
a candidate (and a leader), she (like our own current President) has
to be held accountable
for the quality of their policies and positions and this includes the
issue of gender equality
. How empowering have
their policies been to women (specifically, poor women)
? It is not even an issue of whether
Sarah Palin is pro-life or pro-choice but how, as a leader she proposes
to lead a country where a myriad of views on abortion (and religion)
exist. How can a leader lead without respecting her constituents? (Sarah Seltzer’s
post provides us with the actual views of women leaders on the issue.

In an interview with Katie
Couric, Palin assures the public that while she is pro-life, she does
not support penalizing abortion. In the same interview, however, she
comes dangerously close to a position of denying access to abortion,
when she maintained that she would seek to convince a girl to maintain
her pregnancy by counseling her, without any mention of respecting the
girl’s possibly different views. (Couric’s hypothetical example was
not even one of the more difficult grey area questions but a child raped
by her father.) But perhaps what is most disturbing about Sarah Palin
is that her approach to the elections seems to be one based on
pushing every button there is to push, to engender the deepest divisions
among the American people. Particularly appalling is how racial and
religious prejudices figure in her "terrorist baiting" against Barack
Obama. The irony of course is, as pointed out by pundits, Palin gets
away with it because all she has to do (with her spin doctors) is pull
out the "gender card."  

Gender ought not to be used
in this election (or any other election) as a trump card.
Gender is relevant not to silence the debate, but to push both candidates
and voters to re-examine their views towards other people. Gender matters
in elections in the same way we want to overcome racial, ethnic and
religious biases and to become better human beings. 

Meanwhile, I have to say that
watching Sarah Palin being interviewed by Katie Couric is almost as
entertaining as watching Tina Fey’s sketches (imitating Palin) on
Saturday Night Live (SNL) and just as funny. It only stops being fun
when you realize that only SNL is funny on purpose. 

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