Those who believe that women and people of color are inherently progressive need only read Laura Flanders’s Bushwomen to be disabused. This entertaining and enraging text lambastes female leaders whose policies adversely impact poor and working-class communities as well as stymie efforts to legislate social equity.
Although Flanders concentrates on six leaders in the administration of George W. Bush— National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice; former Press Secretary turned behind-the-scenes ventriloquist Karen Hughes; Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman; Labor Secretary Elaine Chao; former Environmental Protection Agency head Christine Todd Whitman; and Secretary of the Interior Gale Ann Norton— the book casts an eye on other distaff stars. To wit: Katherine Harris, Florida Secretary of State and the arbiter of that state’s 2000 vote count; Abigail Thernstrom, an affirmative action opponent appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; First Lady Laura Bush; and Second Lady Lynne Cheney, are also taken to task.
The result is often humorous, but Flanders does not simply dismiss these women as mere window-dressing. In fact, each is presented as competent, driven, sassy, savvy, and smart. And that’s what’s scary.
Take Condoleeza Rice. A Birmingham, Alabama native, Rice went to an integrated high school, no doubt thanks to the civil rights movement. Her father, a teacher, was recruited by the University of Denver when Condi was 14. While at UD, this registered Republican— John Rice clung to the party of slave emancipation— taught a class on "Black America" and brought luminaries including South African poet Dennis Brutus and Mississippi Freedom Party activist Fannie Lou Hamer to campus.
For her part, Condi developed a fascination with world politics, in particular the Soviet Union. She learned Russian and interned at the State Department. She then moved to the Center for Internal Security and Arms Control (CISAC), becoming the first African American female at the agency. In 1984 she was foreign policy adviser to Democratic Senator Gary Hart. This role was apparently pivotal; colleagues report that after Hart’s presidential bid imploded, Rice’s thinking changed.
Through her CISAC connections she met Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan’s Defense Secretary; he became a friend and mentor and introduced her to other conservative bigwigs. These connections allowed her to move from the Hoover Institute, to the Pentagon, to the Council on Foreign Relations. Over the years she rubbed elbows with Colin Powell and the Bushes. She later joined the board of Chevron where she got to know Dick Cheney, CEO of Halliburton, the world’s largest oil-industry supplier.
Finally, in 1993, she was named Provost of Stanford University, purportedly America’s least diverse elite university. During her tenure Rice did little to change the school’s reputation. By the time she joined Team Bush, Stanford was facing hundreds of discrimination complaints.
"Rice chose world politics and the exercise of power," Flanders writes. "That doesn’t mean her history hasn’t shaped her, but the traces of her childhood influences are more than matched by the mark of military men and oil magnates and two Republican presidents."
Still, Rice had to work at belonging, for despite her family’s relative privilege she lacked the platinum-spoon upbringing of Bushwomen like Karen Hughes and Christine Todd Whitman. Both have family trees that resemble corporate flow-charts and both intend to remain atop the power pyramid.
Disingenuous to the core, Hughes promoted Dubya as a "compassionate conservative."
She coined the phrase, "W is for women," and manufactured emotion-filled rhetoric that touted the Afghan war as a battle to liberate the burka-clad. Meanwhile, at the helm of the EPA, Whitman— dubbed a moderate by the press because she is pro-choice— lied about air toxicity after September 11 and lifted limits on the chemicals mining companies can dump into rivers and streams. "Her favorite words," writes Flanders, "were streamlining instead of weakening, freeing instead of deregulating."
Surprisingly, pundits have done little to attack these women and their policies. The reason? Flanders believes the media are starry-eyed, wowed by the presence of multiple women— several of them non-white— in the upper-echelons. After Bush’s 2000 victory, Flanders reports, countless journalists gushed about the remaking of the Republican Party. "The only thing remade," she gibes, "was the GOP’s public image, and the Bushwomen were a big part of that new look."
That right-wing women willingly forego sisterhood to bolster their class status is obvious. Flanders urges readers to call it what it is: politics. And no matter how the spinmeisters present it, "justice," she concludes, "is indivisible. You can’t tout a handful of winning women when the vast majority are losing out." As the late June Jordan wrote: "Democratic anything presupposes equal membership in the body politic."
Eleanor Bader is a writer based in Brooklyn.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader