How Congress dismissed women’s empowerment

Greg Nash

When the State Department authorization bill tanked in December, Democrats and Republicans blamed one another. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the outgoing chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Ivanka Trump, adviser to her father in the White House, lost a “legacy” piece of legislation, and significant improvements in U.S. diplomacy went unauthorized for the 17th year in a row. Worse, women around the world may have lost an opportunity for economic empowerment.

Here is the lesson both parties should take away from the bill’s scuttling: Start taking women’s issues more seriously, and sooner in the process. Some were quick to spin the fiasco as the result of last-minute White House interference over a trivial matter. The facts, however, deserve a more sober review.    

House and Senate leaders from both parties decided to attach a House-passed fiscal year 2020 State authorization bill to the conference report for the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), after 17 years without such agreement. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pulled the State authorization clause when Democrats rejected language in it that would have codified the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative, or W-GDP.

The W-GDP measure was not “air-dropped” into the bill, as Engel alleged after its failure. Instead, the White House had been talking with Democrats about W-GDP legislation for 18 months, since the launch of the White House strategy implementing the 2017 Women, Peace, and Security Act. That unanimously-passed, bipartisan bill was followed the next year by the 2018 Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act (WEEE).

Ivanka Trump and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) collaborated to get the WEEE Act passed. With that success behind them, they introduced W-GDP legislation in February 2020, co-sponsored by Shaheen and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Reps. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Lois Frankel (D-Fla.). This is hardly a last-minute “air-drop.”  

Shaheen ended the W-GDP collaboration when she and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rejected the latest White House proposal, then part of the State Department reauthorization in the NDAA. The language, like that negotiated for the stand-alone bill, would have authorized a women’s economic empowerment ambassador in the State Department, an interagency steering group, and $1 billion in funding over five years. 

Here’s the point: The White House insisted, and Democrats accepted, that iterative drafts would  focus tightly on five factors holding women back in the marketplace: accessing institutions, building credit, owning and managing property, traveling freely, and removing restrictions on employment. The White House touted the bipartisan nature of the initiative, promoting the five factors to some fanfare over the course of the administration. 

So uncontroversial was W-GDP that when Frankel took the mic at the end of a public event in 2019 and said there can be no economic empowerment without abortion rights, a few guests applauded, a few gasped, and a few more got up and walked out. But no one expected her view to change the initiative. After all, Congress had just doubled its budget, from $50 million to $100 million in its first year, precisely because W-GDP was uncontroversial. So, when the White House included language in the last iteration to ensure that W-GDP funds would not be used to fund abortion, nothing changed substantively.

Shaheen and Pelosi, in what turned out to be a miscalculation, countered that the bill had to remain open to funding reproductive rights. They apparently assumed Republicans would either remove the women’s program or keep it without the abortion-neutrality language. But Republicans took both seriously enough to risk kicking the State authorization bill one more year down the road. Shaheen’s and Pelosi’s overreach did no favors for Engel, who had counted on the Senate reauthorization as a legacy at the end of his 30-year congressional career. 

That the leaders’ rare display of comity on State authorization was scuttled by a women’s issue Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) found “galling.” But why? Aren’t these the same lawmakers who say women’s rights and well-being are an important foreign and security policy priority?

The lesson here is that neither party can afford to see women’s policy as marginal, or women’s programs as “tacked on.” That a rare display of congressional unity was scuttled when a president put his foot down over a women’s empowerment initiative should give women on both sides of the aisle some encouragement. To the contrary, comments equating important policy differences to “throwing a tantrum,” calling W-GDP a “pet” project, and likening it to a “girl’s pony” belittle women and trivialize women’s empowerment. Would the same terms be used if the White House had insisted on, say, another nuclear aircraft carrier? 

The White House raised the bar, to scorn and approbation, on the scrutiny Republicans are willing to give international women’s programs. When the new Congress convenes, both sides would do well to adjust to the higher standard. Women’s economic empowerment overseas improves every American’s security and prosperity at home. Making women’s empowerment a foreign policy priority depends on keeping it a bipartisan issue.

Susan Yoshihara, Ph.D., is the president of the American Council on Women, Peace and Security and author of “Waging War to Make Peace: U.S. Intervention in Global Conflicts.” Follow her on Twitter at @susan_yoshihara.

Tags Chris Coons Eliot Engel Ivanka Trump Jeanne Shaheen Lindsey Graham Lois Frankel Michael McCaul Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi State authorization bill Women's empowerment Women's rights

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