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President Obama’s Moving Letter on Women’s Equality: ‘When Everybody Is Equal, We Are All More Free’

President Obama, feminist.
President Obama, feminist. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Obama has a pretty solid record when it comes to speaking out in favor of equality for women. He became the first-ever sitting president to call himself a feminist at the United State of Women Summit (another first), where he also called for policies that promote equal pay for equal work and affordable child care. And although many of the policies he’d like to see in place have yet to be enacted, on Thursday, which also happened to be his 55th birthday, Obama spoke directly to a new generation of women when he penned an essay for Glamour.

In it, he talks about how his own feminism has been shaped by watching Michelle balance a career and raising their daughters, and how preparing to send Sasha and Malia out into the world has brought to mind both the progress we’ve made and how very far we still have to go to achieve gender parity.

As far as we’ve come, all too often we are still boxed in by stereotypes about how men and women should behave,” he said. “When you’re the father of two daughters, you become even more aware of how gender stereotypes pervade our society. You see the subtle and not-so-subtle social cues transmitted through culture. You feel the enormous pressure girls are under to look and behave and even think a certain way.”

He then helpfully listed all the ways attitudes must change if women are to be seen as equal:

We need to keep changing the attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive, that criticizes our daughters for speaking out and our sons for shedding a tear. We need to keep changing the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality and rewards men for theirs.

We need to keep changing the attitude that permits the routine harassment of women, whether they’re walking down the street or daring to go online. We need to keep changing the attitude that teaches men to feel threatened by the presence and success of women.

We need to keep changing the attitude that congratulates men for changing a diaper, stigmatizes full-time dads, and penalizes working mothers. We need to keep changing the attitude that values being confident, competitive, and ambitious in the workplace—unless you’re a woman. Then you’re being too bossy, and suddenly the very qualities you thought were necessary for success end up holding you back.

We need to keep changing a culture that shines a particularly unforgiving light on women and girls of color. Michelle has often spoken about this. Even after achieving success in her own right, she still held doubts; she had to worry about whether she looked the right way or was acting the right way—whether she was being too assertive or too “angry.”

And making these changes, he pointed out, is as much the responsibility of men as it is the responsibility of women.

He also took the opportunity, once again, to talk up Hillary Clinton, for whom he’s been aggressively campaigning. “Two hundred and forty years after our nation’s founding, and almost a century after women finally won the right to vote, for the first time ever, a woman is a major political party’s presidential nominee,” he said. “No matter your political views, this is a historic moment for America.”

He went on, “I want all of our daughters and sons to see that this, too, is their inheritance … And I want them to help do their part to ensure that America is a place where every single child can make of her life what she will. That’s what twenty-first century feminism is about: the idea that when everybody is equal, we are all more free.”

President Obama on Being a Feminist