Cynthia Oi
Under the Sun
Cynthia Oi

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Women still
used as pawns
in political world

LAURA Bush caught a closer view of anti-American sentiment than her husband usually does, encountering angry Israeli and Muslim protesters during her visit to Israel last weekend.

Unlike the president's, her public appearances don't seem to be as minutely scripted nor her lines of sight thickly shielded from unpleasant views of dissenters.

The first lady is more often serving as presidential surrogate these days. As the woman behind the man, Laura Bush excels. She "softens" his pugnacious image, "humanizes" him, as pundits like to say.

Much was made of a professionally written comedy routine she delivered to a White House press group recently. When she poked fun at Bush's foibles, such as his inability to pronounce "nuclear" and his distaste for cerebral deliberation, she expertly tinted them as endearing.

You can't fault her for using her light to brighten her spouse's because that's really her job -- or at least what American custom has designated for wives of presidents. As Bush's "better half," she must be more approachable, less aloof.

The role is exploitive, but that's a common practice in the realm of politics.

Consider the brawl in the U.S. Senate over judicial appointments. It wasn't by accident that the first two nominees that were sent to the floor for vote were female. The White House's crafted public display of the women, sitting mutely in photo ops with Bush, was calculated to project a image -- that of an ornery bunch of Democratic senators, most of whom are male, denying gentle ladies seats on the bench.

Even in this day and age, there remains a mindset that allows play on the vulnerability of women. There also remains a notion that opposing women for important positions speaks of sexism. Isn't it sexist to let a woman coast in because she's a woman, rather than honestly assess her ability or lack thereof?

That anyone would accept this hogwash about a weaker sex is inconceivable. Or maybe not.

On the other side of the Capitol building last week, a House subcommittee attached an amendment to a spending bill that would restrict women's roles in the military unless Congress says its OK.

At present, women can't serve in direct combat units smaller than brigades to lessen the chance that they would encounter enemy forces. They are, however, permitted to run supplies in ground combat zones, clean things up and provide medical services in ground combat zones and fly helicopters and other aircraft that attack the enemy in combat zones.

But wars are different now. There are no defined front lines, no distinct rear zones. In Iraq, supply trucks are routinely attacked, base camps blown up by suicide bombers, transport vehicles destroyed by roadside mines.

Like their male counterparts, service women have been killed and wounded. They also have survived, and carried out their duties well. Still, politicians like Representative John McHugh, Republican of New York, says "mothers, sisters, wives and daughters" need his protection.

It would not be my choice, but if a woman -- a mother, sister, wife or daughter -- wants to sign up for America's volunteer military -- to serve their country, gain means to go to college or learn a trade -- they should be able to. They are perfectly capable of weighing the dangers. They know that the loss of their lives is worth no more or no less than the loss of a man's.

Well aware, too, is McHugh. He knows that the military is in dire need of troops and that it's likely his amendment will get shot down. But under pressure of a conservative "family" constituency, he needs to make a show of cosseting the women folk, never mind that using women as pawns for his political aims is far more disrespectful.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Cynthia Oi has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at: coi@starbulletin.com.

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