President Obama at the United State of Women conference.
“I may be a little grayer than I was eight years ago,” President Obama told a room of 5,000 at the White House’s United State of Women summit last week, “but this is what a feminist looks like.”
I was standing near the back of the crowd, which was mostly seated at large round tables in a cavernous and overly air-conditioned convention center in Washington, D.C. — probably among the least-inspiring places to witness anything. But as the president went on, I found myself getting emotional. He name-checked women who often go unrecognized for their contributions to progress, like Pauli Murray and Shirley Chisholm and Katherine Johnson. He refused to congratulate men who change diapers. He noted that many women choose to be single. He quoted Audre Lorde. Audre Lorde!
The speech wasn’t just a choir-invigorating sermon on the importance of women in America. It seemed to be a direct address to women outlining what he’s achieved as president — and what he tried and failed to accomplish, too. Obama has, of course, spent most of his years in office hampered by a Republican-led Congress that is studiously disinterested in using the power of government to end segregation, improve pay equity, protect reproductive rights, or acknowledge that a vast majority of American families are not nuclear, heterosexual, and led by a male breadwinner.
I couldn’t help but notice, though, that the “here’s what we still need to do” portion of his speech bore a striking resemblance to the promises he made to women on the campaign trail in 2008.
“We need equal pay for equal work,” Obama said last week, echoing his talking points from the campaign trail during the summer of 2008. The first piece of legislation he signed as president was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and while that law has enabled more women to file lawsuits against their employers for paying them unequally, it didn’t narrow the pay gap. White women still make 78 percent of what white men make, black women make only 64 percent, and Latinas make 54 percent. Not even the most progressive Democrat has proposed a law mandating equal pay, which is what they have in Scandinavian countries and the Philippines.
“We need paid family and sick leave,” Obama declared, after the applause for equal pay had died down. Yet progress has been similarly slow on paid family leave. In 2008, candidate Obama pledged to “invest $1.5 billion to help create paid leave systems across America” — essentially offering states money to cover the cost of offering workers paid leave. He also said he’d require all employers to provide workers with seven paid sick days a year. His administration has been able to offer better leave policies to federal workers and contractors, but everyone else lags: Only 61 percent of private-sector workers get paid sick days. And when Obama tried to get Congress to extend paid-family-leave benefits to non-government workers, Republicans were quick to shut him down.
“We need affordable child care,” Obama said last week. In 2008 he pledged to expand the child-care tax credit to an additional 7.5 million working moms, to provide after-school and summer learning opportunities for an additional 3 million children, and to give every child access to quality, affordable early childhood education. Obama put forth a huge proposal to do this early last year, but it went nowhere. Meanwhile, child-care costs have continued to soar, with no solution in sight.
“We’ve got to raise the minimum wage,” he said last week — a nearly identical statement to his 2008 call to “make sure the minimum wage rises each year to keep up with rising costs.” More than two-thirds of minimum-wage earners are women, and on the campaign trail eight years ago he pledged that the federal hourly minimum would be “$9.50 by 2011, giving 8 million women a well-deserved raise.” Except that now, in 2016, it’s stuck at a dismal $7.25 per hour. After a failed effort to pass federal legislation to raise it, Obama kicked this effort to the states, some of which are making progress — many of which are not.
Even the victories Obama listed were caveat-laden. He mentioned that women are free to marry whomever they love — in large part thanks to a Supreme Court to which Obama appointed two more women. And that more women than ever are getting college degrees. And that birth control is now free. All great things! But he did not mention the rampant violence against trans women and openly gay women and gender-nonconforming women. He didn’t mention the crushing weight of student-loan debt on most of those female college grads. And he definitely did not utter the word abortion.
This fact did not go unnoticed. Outside the convention center, protesters had gathered to demand that Obama issue an executive order to allow government agencies to distribute foreign aid to organizations that provide abortions. The Helms Amendment, passed in 1973, prevents U.S. funding for abortion “as a method of family planning,” which technically allows global aid recipients to perform abortions necessary to save a woman’s life, or in cases of rape or incest. Except agencies don’t allow funding for abortion in those cases, either — which is something Obama could change with the stroke of a pen.
The reality, though, is that most of the president’s 2008 pledges to women were not achievable with a simple signature. They were — and still are — ambitious changes that even a dream Democratic candidate cannot deliver on alone. Obama has spent the past eight years doing his best to push for big, necessary cultural and economic shifts in the face of entrenched institutions and hostile opponents. And he mostly failed.
The real lesson of the Obama presidency is not that our sitting president is a failure. It’s that having a president who looks like a feminist is not enough. For the kind of progress we want, we need politicians at every level who look like feminists. We need business leaders who look like feminists. And we need activists, like the ones outside the convention center, to stay loud and insistent that change is still possible.