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GUEST EDITORIAL

Political buyer beware

The media is awash in stories about how women (except for some of us old gals over 50) are flocking to Barack Obama in droves and away from Hillary Clinton. Feminists are pitted against feminists as to which candidate, if elected, would be better for women, and many younger women are arguing with their mothers and aunties.

But there's a much bigger division looming, and it's not between the Obama and Clinton camps. What everybody ought to be looking closer at is that "if elected" part. Women have suffered incredible setbacks under the Bush administration and it is in their hands whether that path continues after November.

A lot of Bush's damage to the country as a whole, like the war and the tanking economy, is front and center. But much of the damage to women has been under the radar.

Presidential appointees can do tremendous harm, mostly out of the public eye. Take Wade Horn, one of Bush's Health and Human Services assistant secretaries. Horn founded the National Fatherhood Initiative to promote marriage as the solution to poverty, loudly touting his belief that "the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church." Then he gave the group $12.38 million of the taxpayer's money to push marriage instead of funding job training and educational programs to get women off welfare.

But the marriage money is peanuts compared to the megabucks Horn poured into abstinence-only sex education in the public schools. That tab now comes to $176 million per year, even though the government's own research shows the programs don't work and teenage pregnancy is up for the first time in 15 years.

Not to be outdone, the Bush appointees over at the Department of Education have stayed busy dismantling Title IX, the law protecting girls from discrimination in educational programs, including sports. For decades courts have upheld the Education Department's rigorous criteria for compliance as valid. But no matter. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings issued a Title IX "clarification," allowing schools to refuse to create additional sports opportunities for women based solely on e-mail interest surveys. Failure of female students to answer e-mail surveys is now routinely counted by colleges as a lack of interest in participating in sports. Neither the standard nor the e-mail survey method of limiting opportunities applies to male students.

Even the women holding up Bush's precious wars have not escaped. Almost one in seven members of the military serving on active duty are women, and they make up a nearly identical percentage of National Guard and reserve units. Though the Air Force uncovered scores of rape accusations, a rising trend of reported abuses, and the most basic shortcomings in tracking the crime and attending to its victims in 2004, the Defense Department has been slow to pursue the allegations. And Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has yet to formulate a policy for dealing with contractors who commit rape.

The damage done by most political appointees can be undone by the next president or the next Congress if they're so inclined. Not so with the Supreme Court, where judges sit for life. If the Republicans regain the White House - or even Senate - and continue down the Bush path, we can probably kiss reproductive rights goodbye, and expect to lose any hope of redress in the courts for employment discrimination.

That's because the next president will likely make at least two Supreme Court appointments. Two is enough to do a lot of damage, as Bush lackeys John Roberts and Samuel Alito have shown. They've already tipped the balance, resulting in decisions upholding the first federal abortion procedure ban, and the severe curtailment of women's ability to sue for discrimination at work. The court's only woman and strongest women's advocate, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, spoke out strongly in her dissent on both cases. She is 74 years old. Her colleague John Paul Stevens - another pro-woman vote - is 87.

So the real choice for women is not between race or gender, show horse or work horse. It's between continuing the Bush policies or voting in November for a candidate that can and will turn those policies around, and get rid of the anti-woman poison in Washington.

Women are not a "special interest." They are the majority - of the population, of registered voters, and of those that actually turn out. It's no wonder candidates are trying so hard to woo them. We've all heard the expression "buyer beware." As political buyers this year, women must be warier than ever.

Martha Burk is the director for the Corporate Accountability Project for the National Council of Women's Organizations.

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