President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team has asked the State Department to provide information on staffing and funding for all its gender-related programs, raising alarm that the equality initiatives may be vulnerable to cuts under the new administration.
A memo emailed to State Department employees on Wednesday, obtained by The New York Times, asks for full reports on all existing programs and activities to promote gender equality, “such as ending gender-based violence, promoting women’s participation in economic and political spheres, entrepreneurship, etc.”
The Trump team didn’t ask for the names of government employees working on those issues, but did request a list of jobs whose primary functions are to promote gender equality, and the funds for those programs.
The memo’s language immediately triggered concerns.
“It’s not clear to us what the intent is behind this request,” an anonymous official told The Washington Post. “The Trump team could be looking to advance gender issues and make it a priority ― or you could look at it as a witch hunt.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), the highest-ranking woman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the request “concerning” in a press release and appealed for the Trump team to clarify its intentions.
“I can promise that if the next administration intends to roll back programs designed to lift women up, it will very quickly meet stiff opposition in the Senate,” Shaheen said.
The Trump team also raised alarm with an Energy Department memo seeking the names of people who had worked on climate change.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said during a briefing on Thursday that it was “normal” and “expected” for a transition team to ask questions about staffing and resources.
And in a statement, Friday, the Trump transition team said, “President-elect Trump will ensure the rights of women across the world are valued and protected. To help fulfill this promise, the transition team inquired about existing programs at the State department that helps foster gender equality, ends gender-based violence, and promotes economic and political participation—finding ways to improve them, along with hundreds of other requests.”
But for those working on gender issues who were already worried about the impact of a Trump administration, the memo stirred growing anxiety.
Lynn Rosenthal, who worked with the State Department on global domestic violence initiatives as the former White House adviser on violence against women, said it was difficult to view the memo in a benign light given Trump’s history of demeaning and insulting women.
“In a normal time, this request might be seen as just normal fact-gathering on the part of an incoming administration, but these are not normal times,” she said.
Rosenthal voiced concern that Trump’s administration might roll back some of the work undertaken by the Clinton State Department to amplify women’s rights across the globe.
“We haven’t ended domestic violence and sexual assault in the U.S. or around the world, but certainly a tremendous amount of progress has been made, and other countries look to us,” she said. “It’s terrifying to think that all of that could go backward. It is also terrifying to think that there could be some kind of ideological agenda on women’s rights.”
While Rosenthal did not want to speculate on how State Department employees were perceiving the memo, she said women’s rights advocates are rattled.
“This request is from someone who does not have a history of supporting our work, and in some ways has undermined our work just by the comments he makes publicly,” said Rita Smith, the former executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “There’s no indication that this could be a good thing.”
Another leader in the gender-based violence movement, who asked to be quoted anonymously, said nerves are running high.
“There are fears that this will be a ‘hit list,’ and that State Department efforts to prevent child marriages, bride burnings, acid attacks, gang rapes, and in general to seek fair treatment of women around the world will be targeted for dismantling,” she said. “These are small programs with small resources, but they make a big differences in the lives of women who are more oppressed than we can imagine.”
Alyse Nelson, a former State Department worker who’s now president of Vital Voices, a nonprofit working to empower women leaders, said the request for information could be interpreted as a positive sign.
“It’s a recognition that gender issues are integral to foreign policy,” Nelson said. “We have to continue to watch and make sure, but that’s true of any transition.”
This story has been updated with statements from Trump’s transition team and Lynn Rosenthal.