Bush's 'Power Puff Girls'

Ari Fleischer needed answers, and he knew where to go. Early this spring, when the Bush administration quietly closed the Office for Women's Initiatives and Outreach, the White House press secretary was swamped with questions from reporters. Was the new president signaling a retreat on women's issues? "What's our answer?" Fleischer asked at the daily 7:30 a.m. senior-staff meeting. His boss, presidential counselor Karen Hughes, looked around the Roosevelt Room, where Bush's 18 top staffers had gathered. Eight of them were women. She let out a laugh. "In this White House, the women's office is the senior-staff meeting!"

It's a pretty good comeback. Though mainstream women's groups have long opposed George W. Bush for his positions on issues like abortion and gun control, they have to give him credit for this: he has appointed more women to positions of power and influence than any president in history. The steely Hughes, arguably the most influential White House aide of either gender, is Bush's alter ego, so in tune with his thinking that they sometimes make the same edits on speeches independently. Condoleezza Rice is the first woman ever to serve as national-security adviser. Rice spoke with Bush each morning at 5:30 to discuss overnight developments during the recent standoff with China.

Bush appointed Harriet Miers, his personal lawyer, as his staff secretary--the gatekeeper who controls every piece of paper Bush sees or signs. Domestic-policy adviser Margaret LaMontagne is Bush's eyes and ears on education, the issue at the top of the president's agenda. Mary Matalin, adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, has referred to the women of the White House collectively as "the Power Puff Girls." And that cadre doesn't even include the cabinet, which features women at the helm of the EPA, Labor, Agriculture and Interior.

Friends joke that Bush wound up surrounding himself with tough, straight-talking women who are a lot like his mother, Barbara--nicknamed "the Enforcer" by Bush for her tart tongue. Bush says as much himself. "Part of the reason why I feel I value the advice of very strong-willed and strong-minded women is because of my mom," he told NEWSWEEK. "My wife is a very strong-willed, strong-minded woman. And neither of those two are afraid to tell me what for or what to do."

Conservatives complain that Bush--an affirmative-action opponent--is enforcing a stealth "quota system" for women. White House officials deny there is any affirmative-action plan for women, but they acknowledge that Bush passed down an informal diversity policy that women should fill about 30 percent of administration jobs. At the same time, women's groups complain that Republican women are benefiting from decades of feminist activism. "We knew if we kicked the doors open, conservative women would walk through," says Patricia Ireland of NOW.

Those are fighting words. Few things irritate Bush's female aides more than the suggestion that they got ahead because they're women. "That's ludicrous! It doesn't make a difference that we're women--nor do we want to be treated differently," says Margaret Tutwiler, Bush's communications director. No wonder Hughes and other female aides had no problem closing the women's office. "Tax cuts, education, Social Security: those are women's issues," says Lezlee Westine, who heads the Office of Public Liaison.

Even so, the number of women working in the White House has led to one noticeable change: staffers are going home at night. Though Bill Clinton preached about a family-friendly administration, even young parents often wound up staying late into the night waiting on the undisciplined president. Bush put an end to that. "Don't run off my mothers!" he ordered his chief of staff, Andy Card, when word got back to him that some women staffers with kids were worried about inflexible hours. Instead, they take mobile-phone calls at home after normal business hours. You can measure the influence of women in Bush's White House just by the way the place clears out at dinnertime.