It’s tempting to think that the four years after January 20 will be a wasteland for gender rights and women’s equality policy. We’ll be lucky if we can merely stem the bleeding and fend off the rollback of rights. The signs are certainly not promising, starting with a presidential campaign marred by sexism and boasts of sexual assault and a climate of restrictions, particularly on reproductive health.

We know how influential US policy direction and decisions can be. They are not confined to US borders – they spill over, affecting policy environments and decisions around the world, and particularly in Canada. So, what will the next four years look like for gender rights and women’s equity policy?

The first impact of a Trump administration will likely be a shifting rightward of policy norms, where the scope of public policy debate tightens to exclude previously acceptable views. Put plainly, we should expect discussions of trans rights, increasing abortion access, and Black Lives Matter for example, to be off the table. Public policy professionals and women’s advocates will have to decide whether to constrain the options they publicly present, to conform with what is deemed acceptable by the new administration.

Already progressive organizations are debating how and whether they can retain their focus on evidence-informed policy, in a political environment that appears to view science as counter to its ideological leanings. It is not merely that the new administration views evidence as suspicious, it views it as almost antithetical to its mandate. How does an organization promote public policy when the new administration rejects the very underpinnings of that policy? For example, how much change can a women’s rights think tank effect, in an administration that doesn’t seem to believe women need any additional rights?

How much change can a women’s rights think tank effect, in an administration that doesn’t seem to believe women need any additional rights?

This new landscape begs the question: can gender equity advocates make progress in such a hostile environment? Or does achieving progress mean minimizing one’s values and accepting the policy decisions that do the least harm?

If presidentially endorsed policy includes defunding Planned Parenthood and mandating bathrooms that exclude transgender people, what will happen to policies on women’s economic advancement, equal pay, and paid maternity leave?

For policy and advocacy organizations with US-based funders, this question could affect their financial viability. Funders, especially government ones, take their lead from the political debate. As in Canada under the previous government, where funding dried up for women’s organizations like the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women and the Feminist Alliance for International Action, we could see similar US organizations fold too.

In the Trump era, it’s likely the current gender equality voices will change. A new administration can influence which are the pivotal voices on public policy. REAL Women of Canada, which promotes the traditional family among other issues, arguably lost the influence it had enjoyed while the Conservatives were in power. Will we see organizations similar to REAL Women rise in prominence in the US? What will be the fate of Emily’s List, which works for “larger leadership roles for pro-choice Democratic women in our legislative bodies and executive seats”; NARAL Pro-Choice America; and women’s labour and other progressive organizations in the public policy debate?

Perhaps on the brighter side, it looks likely Ivanka Trump will take a key role in the administration; an appointment that is intended to smooth over the President’s previous comments about women and present him as a champion for women.

With smart positioning, a broad coalition and relationship-building, rolling back progress is not inevitable.

It’s possible that gender and women’s equality advocates can use this appointment to their advantage and propose policies on “soft issues” like child care, women in the workplace, and support for children’s activities. A Canadian equivalent would be the tax credits for children’s activities, or a blue ribbon panel on women in the boardroom. It’s debatable whether this is progress, incrementalism or dressing up failure in equality’s clothing. However, with smart positioning, a broad coalition and relationship-building, rolling back progress is not inevitable. Out of George W. Bush’s administration — considered anti-choice and somewhat hostile to women’s rights — came the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. It’s one of the largest efforts by a single country to address a gendered and stigmatized disease, and by 2013 it had received over US$48 billion for the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Outside the US, however, we may see a backlash against the Trump administration’s position on gender equity. The presence of the Trudeau government to the north adds an interesting dimension, and much has already been written about Canada as being the last bastion of progressivism. As many countries tend to define themselves in opposition to the US, a sharp turn from Trump on gender equity could exacerbate this tendency. It’s possible, for example, that opposition to US policy will result in increased funding for pro-choice organizations internationally.

There’s also the possibility that Trump’s stance on women will actually lead to an increase in the number of women seeking political office. More women in politics would help ensure effective contributions on all the issues, and it could provide an alternative way (that is, one not coming from the President) to promote gender equity policy. Governments at the state and lower levels may prove important and fruitful battlegrounds, and gender equity policy advocates may find more elected allies there than at the federal government level.

Trump’s stance could also, however, make policies that once were deemed extreme appear mainstream. It is hard for global leaders to disavow policies they view as extreme or outside the norm when they are proposed by the President of the United States. Witness British Prime Minister Theresa May’s discomfort when she was asked in an interview about Trump’s “grab her by the pussy” comments. And protests outside sexual health clinics in the UK were unheard of even five years ago. They have crept in from the US and now occur relatively often. Tactics and strategies can and are being imported.

Canada taking a more assertive stand on women’s rights, with wide public support, sets up an interesting dynamic between the two countries. It’s a dynamic the Trudeau government is already gingerly beginning to navigate. How can Canada still make global progress on gender and women’s rights? Best case scenario is we will be able to neutralize the impact of our southern neighbour’s actions. At the very least, Canada will avoid being seen as subservient to US policy on gender.

While much remains unknown about Trump’s stance on many issues, as a result of his and his advisers’ public comments we can at least be reasonably sure of the direction he will pursue on women. In the US, the environment for gender equity advocates will be difficult, but not impossible. The state and municipal levels offer opportunities for progress. With clever positioning and strategy, it’s possible that gender and women’s equity advocates will achieve policy wins. In other global north countries, it could go two ways. Optimistically, I suspect Trump’s stance will spur rather than hinder progress. However, there is very real risk that the tightening in the policy environment will spill over, affecting funding, discourse and progress.

Photo:  Della Rollins/The Canadian Press

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Lauren Dobson-Hughes
Lauren Dobson-Hughes is a consultant specializing in gender, health and rights. She was previously executive director of an international development NGO, and past president of Planned Parenthood. Lauren worked for the late NDP Leader Jack Layton.

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