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Forcing Unfair Choices

By Madhavi Sunder

AS a young woman going to Harvard, I should feel like I have every option in the world available to me. I'm young, I'm smart, I'm healthy. I'm enthusiastic and confident in my abilities. I should feel that I am able to accomplish my goals, no matter what I choose to do with my life.

But there is one thing that even today, in 1990, limits my aspirations. And that one thing is my womanhood.

It seems that no matter how far the feminist movement has come, even now, having almost 30 years of feminist activism behind us, we still have not yet entered an age in which women have all of the same options as men do.

Probably nothing better explains the reason for our shackled position than President Bush's veto of the parental leave bill last week. Arguing that it was not his place to force American businesses to do anything they did not want to do, the President refused to sign a bill that guaranteed workers unpaid time off for births, adoptions, or medical emergencies involving family members.

The hypocrisy in the President's move lies not just in the fact that he went back on his word from his campaign days, but more in the fact that for all of his talk about the need to preserve the American family--its values, its traditions, its unity--his move does just the opposite.

In a country where a second paycheck is not simply supplementary, but necessary for the survival of today's working and middle-class families, not having the right to return to one's job after taking needed time off to give birth or attend to one's family deals a fatal blow to every American, from the eldest adult to the youngest child.

For women, especially, the President's callous flick of his pen deals a hard blow. His move only reaffirms that women have to make a choice between their families and their careers. According to the President, it is not a fundamental right that the women of this country should be guaranteed the opportunity to pursue both.

Bush's veto also holds grave economic consequences for women. The number one reason employers give for continued lower wages for women is that they leave the work force to have children, and are therefore "bad investments."

A parental leave law, however, would have provided an opportunity to render that sort of reasoning obsolete. That is, if such a bill were indeed to become law, more and more men would be encouraged to take some time off from work to care for their children, thus taking the onus and stereotypes away from the childbearing women alone. Such a law does indeed have the potential to encourage the philosophy of sharing the responsibilities of raising one's children.

It is taking a very long time for society to rethink our old fashioned customs regarding sex roles and responsibilities in the home. this suggests that only legislation will provide enough impetus to actually have a positive impact on the lives of women and families in this country.

But obviously, the President does not believe this issue is as important as Congress and a majority of Americans do. And what seems even more surprising is that this veto came from a President whose wife just recently made a highly publicized--and controversial--speech at the Wellesley College commencement, where she told the young women in the graduating class that their families and loved ones should and would come first in their lives.

The President's decision only shows that his own wife and family have relatively little impact on his own actions when compared with the influence of big business lobbyists. A grandfather of more than a dozen he may be, but this President is no champion of the family.

Maybe if the President himself had been able to spend more time with his family during his long political career, then he, too, could understand where the American people are coming from in their desire to see this bill become a law.

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