Where the Wild Things Weren’t: Daily Beast’s Women’s Summit Avoids Controversial Realities

Megan Carpentier

The Daily Beast's first Women in the World Summit played stuck to lowest-common denominator issues, and avoided the "scary" and "controversial" (read: political) realities of women's lives.

Attendees at the Daily Beast’s first “Women in the World” summit might have felt that it got off to a shaky start when Fran Townsend, an official in the recent Bush Administration who advocating bombing Pakistan and torturing “enemy combatants,” moderated a panel discussing the problems that women face in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, the panel did not reflect on how America’s 9-year-and-counting war in the region had affected the lives of women.

The summit’s rocky start was occasionally reflected throughout the two days; when Madeleine Albright, for instance, defended the UN’s role in the Congo despite hearing from Congolese women that the UN’s record was far from stellar; when Queen Rania of Jordan talked about the need to improve women’s literacy and access to education, while failing to note the significant gender-based literacy gap in her own country; when an interview with Valerie Jarrett, the chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, failed to address either the Paycheck Fairness Act or whether the President would sign a health care reform bill with the Stupak anti-abortion language included. And although the summit’s intellectual highlights included serious panel discussions on rape as a weapon of war and the burden of and grassroots solutions for female genital mutilation, there wasn’t even a whisper of the most widespread reproductive health phenomenon: lack of access in much of the world to basic reproductive health education and services, contraceptive supplies and, yes, safe abortion services.

What gives? It was only a year ago that President Obama rescinded the Global Gag Rule, but that doesn’t mean the work to help provide access to contraception, reproductive health education and abortion is somehow over.

The President’s 2011 budget cuts $5 million from the United States’ contribution to the UN Population Fund, though it does increase the money the U.S. will spend on international reproductive health and family planning by $67 million overall. Most of that money will go through USAID — where grants are subject to restrictions that include a prohibition on paying for any abortion and “Buy American” provisions for USAID’s condom purchases, which raises prices and limits total distribution. USAID funds can’t be used to recruit or train medical professionals to perform safe abortions, and they can’t fund groups that lobby their governments to address the toll on women’s lives of unsafe abortion or to legalize abortion.  But USAID cannot “discriminate” against groups that only offer training to individuals in “natural family planning methods” (i.e., the rhythm method). It might be better than the dark days under the global gag rule, when groups couldn’t inform women about the existence of abortion or how to safely procure one, but it’s far from the comprehensive education programs that most women envisioned or that women urgently need.

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The Obama Administration does realize that increasing the age at which women give birth to their first child, as well as arming women with the knowledge of how to prevent unwanted pregnancies, is an important part of raising the standard of living for many women in the world — those are both explicit targets of the Administration’s Global Health Initiative. So, where was the panel on how to educate women about their bodies, about peer education on birth control and HIV prevention, about the delicate ways that local women and health professionals — even ones working under USAID auspices — can steer women to safe abortion services rather than sitting on their hands as women poison or maim themselves (or are hurt by their partners or their rapists) to prevent unwanted pregnancies?

Where was the panel about cervical cancer in the developing world and peer education programs to address this issue? The panel on the special needs of women when it comes to HIV prevention, particularly among sex workers? The group discussion of anti-gay sentiment, which ranges from “corrective rapes” in South Africa to the fight to impose the death penalty on gay men and lesbians in Uganda? A flashy appearance by Queen Rania to talk about the need to educate women is great, or the ability for a woman to head a company in China can be compelling, but those are hardly topics that escaped the attention of the mainstream media.

What they are is uncontroversial. No one in the Daily Beast crowd thinks that the mutilation of women’s faces in Afghanistan and Pakistan is tolerable; no one thinks that rape should be used as a weapon of war; no one believes that women shouldn’t run companies; and no one believes that girls shouldn’t receive an education. But like The Daily Beast itself, where bylines by Palin campaign adviser Nicole Wallace and Meghan McCain run alongside columns defending serial sexual harasser Terry Richardson and graphic descriptions of the content of John Edwards’ sex tape, editor and founder Tina Brown deliberately walks the line between the salacious and the informative, and between the center and the right. During the 2008 campaign, it hosted the coming out of closet Palin supporter (and former Ms. Magazine editor) Elaine Lafferty and a number of her ideological compatriots who all agreed that abortion rights should be secondary to the visibility of a woman in power — and that it didn’t matter which woman.

So the conference, like the publication, catered to the lowest common denominator: rape bad; education good, and there’s no immediate harm in that. But, as many rape survivors know, access to abortion and emergency contraception needs to be part of post-rape health care, when it’s desired; peer education programs designed to teach about family planning and contraception can also help education women about the real risks of FGC; and fighting the social forces that attempt to restrict women’s sexuality often means fighting the same people who will demonize and criminalize homosexuality. Conferences like Women in the World can and need to be used to generate more understanding and even consensus on controversial topics without bowing to a political correctness that caters to those more scared of the shadow of the right than its actual presence. Otherwise, it’ll just be a sideshow of feel-good policies, famous women and empty promises to the women of the world who need us most.

Analysis Politics

At Male-Dominated Conference, CPAC Women’s Panel Tries To Be Heard

Emily Crockett

The only all-female panel at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference took the stage Saturday, in the final hours of the final day of the convention, to rail against Republicans for not giving women enough support and against Democrats for “infantilizing” women.

Read more of our coverage on the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference here.

The only all-female panel at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) took the stage Saturday, in the final hours of the final day of the convention, to rail against Republicans for not giving women enough support and against Democrats for “infantilizing” women.

Crystal Wright, editor and publisher of the blog Conservative Black Chick, called out CPAC for failing at “basic optics” with its obvious gender disparity. “How did we start this conference? With one gender representing the movement of the conservative party,” she said. “We shouldn’t have all the women stacked up on one day.”

Thursday’s mainstage program had no featured female speakers, while Saturday’s program had the women’s panel, Sarah Palin, Carly Fiorina, Michelle Bachmann, Ann Coulter, and several other female speakers and panelists. Robin Abcarian at the Los Angeles Times estimated that about 78 percent of all CPAC speakers and panelists, mainstage and not, were male.

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Saturday also happened to be both International Women’s Day and the most sparsely attended day of the convention.

The panel was called “Why Conservatism Is Right for Women: How Conservatives Should Talk About Life, Prosperity, and National Security.” If “life” was intended to be a reference to abortion, the panelists didn’t get the memo. Reproductive rights and birth control came up a few times, but mostly in the context of why it’s a problem for male politicians to be dominating the discussion of “women’s issues.” No one specified what kinds of reproductive rights policies the right should be pursuing in a time of rampant state-level attacks on abortion access and high-level court fights over contraception.

“A lot of folks are saying [the ‘war on women’ meme] has run its course, that the messaging doesn’t work anymore,” said Kate Obenshain, Republican strategist and author of Divider-In-Chief. “That’s our head in the sands, folks. It works. It works really well.” Ken Cuccinelli’s defeat in the Virginia governor’s race, Obenshain said, was solely attributable to the “war on women” messaging. And it hurts the party, she said, to listen to consultant conventional wisdom to just not to talk about these issues. If all voters hear is that Cuccinelli opposes the Violence Against Women Act, “that’s just hanging out there,” and people wonder whether he takes women’s safety seriously. It’s better, Obenshain said, to come back with alternate proposals.

Wright said that polling found 55 percent of Americans think Republicans don’t understand women, and 60 percent of U.S. women think as such. Women won’t vote for you if they think you hate them, the panelists agreed.

Obenshain also begged her male Republican colleagues: “We cannot have any stupid comments this year. OK? No stupid comments.” As in, stop making pithy remarks about rape or anything else that could play into the “war on women” theme.

The panelists had other words of advice for, and requests of, the male Republican establishment:

  • Talk about fairness. “The left doesn’t own the idea of fairness,” said Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of Independent Women’s Forum, noting that research from her organization said that perception of fairness was the best indication of whether a woman “supports big government” ideas like the Paycheck Fairness Act.
  • Encourage more female candidates to run, and back them up when they’re attacked. New Hampshire state Rep. Marilinda Garcia said she never thought of running for office until someone specifically asked her to, and that she was subject to sexist attacks once she did. Obenshain said male party leaders have to publicly back up female candidates because they are “attacked more viciously than male candidates.” Wright said women always second-guess themselves and don’t want to take on leadership roles because they’re socialized not to.
  • Spend more money on women and female candidates. Schaeffer said that the left has out-researched and outspent the right on reaching women for the past decade with organizations like Emily’s List, the American Association of University Women, and the National Women’s Law Center. Wright said that only 26 percent of campaign funds raised in 2010 midterm elections went to female candidates.
  • Be more compassionate in pro-family messaging, and be unapologetic about advocating for conservative policies. While panelists said that marriage, strong families, and education are the best routes out of poverty, they said that conservatives too often sound judgmental of single mothers, childless women, or divorced women. Obenshain said President Obama is “intentionally” decimating women’s economic circumstances, and that the astronomical poverty rate for single women can be blamed on regulations and taxes that inhibit hiring.

The panelists agreed that women need to take initiative and run for office. They also agreed that Democrats “infantilize” women by encouraging them to depend on big government, as moderator Tammy Bruce, deputy editor at the Washington Times, put it several times. Government is morally and financially bankrupt, Wright said, and so “if you want to be a millionaire you have to do it on your own, and we have the tools to help you do that.”

Do it on your own, but vote for us because we can help you, but getting help from your elected representatives is an insult. To hear Sarah Palin and Carly Fiorina talk, it’s also an insult to mention reproductive freedom at all; Palin said Democrats think women are “cheap dates” who can be lured with “free” birth control, and Fiorina said Democrats “insult” women by “thinking all they care about is reproductive rights.” Obenshain echoed this line of thinking by saying that Republicans think of women as “more than the sum of their body parts.”

“Conservatism empowers me to be the kind of woman I want to be,” said Wright, who later mentioned it was “sad that so many women in our party feel powerless.” For all the panelists’ encouragement of conservative women to stand up, be heard, and run for office, they also acknowledged that doing so will be extremely difficult without the male leadership agreeing to support them, and refraining from making them look bad.

News Media

Global Roundup: Uganda Anti-Gay Bill is Back; Mexico’s First Female Presidential Candidate from a Major Party

Jessica Mack

Starting this week, we will be bringing you a weekly roundup of global sexual and reproductive health and justice news!

Welcome to our new Weekly Global Reproductive Justice Roundup! Each week, reporter Jessica Mack will summarize reproductive and sexual health and justice news from around the world.  We will still report in depth on some of these stories, but we want to make sure you get a sense of the rest and the best.

Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill is Back
Just one year after the brutal murder of Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato, the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill is back on the table in Uganda’s Parliament. It will go through a first, then second reading, before it is debated. However, prior debate reports on the bill, which was introduced in 2009 amid global outcry, may be used to accelerate this process. If the bill is passed by Parliament, the President cannot veto it and would sentence anyone convicted of homosexuality to life imprisonment and someone convicted of “aggravated homosexuality” to death. Via NTV and Warren Throckmorton.

First Female Presidential Nominee in Mexico a Win?

Josefina Vasquez Mota, an economist and former education secretary, is the first woman in Mexico to run for president on a major party ticket, for the National Action Party. Vasquez Mota has said she does not support reproductive rights and will not make feminist issues such as wage parity and anti-discrimination a part of her campaign or administration. Critics say she is running on traditional feminine images of caretaker, housewife, and consoler, and her victory would not be a win for women. Via New York Times.

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India is Deadliest Place for a Girl

According to a new report from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), India has the worst gender differential for child mortality in the world, with Indian girls ages 1-5 75% more likely to die than boys of the same age. Experts attribute the disproportionate rate to wide failure to support adequate food and nutrition, healthcare, and emotional  wellbeing of girls. At the same time, however, recent reports suggest that sex-selective abortion rates are declining. Via Times of India.

Cambodian Garment Workers Demand Better Pay and Treatment

The first-ever People’s Tribunal on Minimum Living Wage and Working Conditions was held this week, organized by union coalitions in Cambodia. The garment industry is 90% of Cambodia’s exports, and the workers are nearly all women. Producing clothes for giants like H&M and Urban Outfitters, workers are  underpaid and recent mass fainting highlighted poor working conditions. The Tribunal is a singular space for workers’ voices and concerns, who will lobby for better conditions. Via Global Voices.

The GOP’s Global War on Women

The remaining GOP candidates have expressed their opposition to birth control access and funding to varying degrees, and Mitt Romney has even pledged to eliminate federal family planning funding. If domestic family planning programs aren’t safe, Michelle Goldberg argues, then global family planning programs certainly are not either. Cuts to global family planning would be devastating to women worldwide, especially in countries like Liberia, where USAID provides nearly the entirety of its birth control supplies. Via The Daily Beast.