By Martha Burk
Ronald Reagan, the most anti-woman president of the 20th century, was buried 17 years ago this June. Too bad his policies weren’t buried with him.
Unfortunately, they’re still very much alive today. The Reagan “vision” for America, with its disproportionately negative impact on the female half, is now firmly embedded in Republican dogma.
The 40th president was indeed a clear-eyed visionary. He envisioned a world where women would never be granted equality under the U.S. constitution, where abortion was illegal, and where equal employment laws would be history.
Reagan began his assault on women even before he was even elected. The Republicans had been the first major party to champion constitutional equality for women, putting the Equal Rights Amendment in their platform in 1940. Ronnie ended that. The ERA disappeared from the platform in 1980, because Reagan opposed it.
Instead, Reagan backed a “Human Life Amendment” to the U.S. Constitution that would have banned abortion and even some types of birth control. And in 1984 he instituted the “Mexico City Policy,” which dried up money for international family planning. Since then it’s been official U.S. policy pretty much whenever there’s a Republican president.
“Smaller government,” for example, translated directly to smaller government departments like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), charged with investigating sex discrimination in the workplace.
Even while sex discrimination claims rose 25 percent, Reagan cut the EEOC budget in half, shrank its caseload by 300 percent, put Clarence Thomas in charge, and issued a directive to delay, drag out, and drop cases. Many women with legitimate claims simply gave up.
Reagan also refused to raise the minimum wage, propagating the false belief that higher wages cost jobs. Then, as now, adult women were the largest group of minimum wage workers. That translates today to more women and their children still living in poverty, with no light at the end of the tunnel Ronnie dug.
Though he failed to stop girls and women from getting equal access to school sports (women’s groups fomented a revolt among soccer moms and dads), other Reagan-era tenets have become reality.
Reagan’s hardline anti-abortion and anti-welfare policies laid the groundwork for the ever-increasing and punitive state restrictions we’re seeing today, as well as abstinence-only sex education and “marriage promotion” as a substitute for programs like Medicaid and food stamps.
Conservatives will wax eloquent that Reagan’s economic agenda — with its record deficits, tax cuts for the rich, and dismantling of social programs — was ahead of its time. They’ll be right. It took until the Clinton administration to complete Reagan’s assault on poor women and their children by “ending welfare as we know it.”
The deficits of the 1980s look minuscule compared to today’s black hole that is getting deeper every second thanks to the colossal corporate tax cuts and military spending hikes that were passed under the Trump administration. And now as then, Republicans use those deficits they created to justify starving the programs that women depend on.
With Ronnie’s political progeny now all grown up and blocking progress in the U.S. Senate, new initiatives like subsidized child care, paid family leave, or anything else benefiting women and kids remains a steep climb for the foreseeable future. Just this spring, every single Republican senator voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would have protected women from wage discrimination at work.
This week we really should stop and contemplate Ronald Reagan’s true legacy. For women, it is a bitter harvest indeed.
Martha Burk (@MarthaBurk) is the director of the Corporate Accountability Project for the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO).