Friday, in a White House press release celebrating the 91st anniversary of women's suffrage in the U.S., President Obama declared:
"The 19th Amendment tore down the last formal barrier to women's enfranchisement in our Nation and empowered America's women to have their own voices heard in the halls of power," he proclaimed in a White House press release.
The administration was wise to honor that crucial moment as Obama steps toward reelection. But just how friendly to women has our 44th president been?
Wage Equity: A new poll shows dwindled support for Obama among unmarried women, due to his lack of strong message on the economy and job creation. Although the very first bill Obama signed into law was The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which allows employees to contest discriminatory paychecks without a statute of limitations,
Ledbetter mostly paved the way for lawsuits, and still a national wage gap persists. Even though more than half of college graduates are women, and more women than ever pursue masters degrees, women still earn, on average, 77 cents for every dollar men do, according to the National Women's Law Center, which amounts to about $11,000 each year for the average working woman.
Women In Office: Obama arguably did more for women by appointing Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court. These two minority, pro-choice justices bring more diverse perspective to America's most influential bench and perhaps that quality some claim has no place in the judiciary, empathy. And despite the sexist mixed reaction to Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comment, and the strange questions asked of Kagan during her confirmation hearing (which bachelor did she preferred from the vampire series, "Twilight"?), these women will inspire generations to come to pursue positions of power. But only 17 women serve our country as senators currently, and women make up just 17% percent of congress as a whole compared to as a whole, compared to, say, Rwanda, where women make up more than half of Parliament.
Reproductive Rights: Perhaps the lack of women in office led to compromises for women in Obama's historical, largely contested health care reform. The public option and the Pitts-Stupak amendment blocking federal dollars to fund abortion were early concessions, and it was unclear whether universal health care would include measures for birth control. However, women breathed a collective sigh of relief recently when Obama proposed a mandate that insurance companies must universally cover contraception for women, and that birth control will not require a copay. Though this will not take affect until 2013, it is an important statement from the White House recognizing women's ability to control their own wombs, and that bodes well for the possible expansion or at least the protection of reproductive freedoms in the future. Insurance plans did not always cover birth control, but now, women are guaranteed that their plans will. Obama has also spoken out and directed money to education and resources to curb domestic violence, and he signed into law the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.
It is obvious that there is still work to do. In March, the White House released the first report in more than 50 years that looks honestly at how women fare in America today. In "Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being," there are heartening findings: Women earn a larger share of family income, are more educated than once before and live longer than men. But the report also acknowledged the challenges that persist in pay, health and power. Hopefully this awareness will translate into more work on behalf of women from Washington and especially from our 44th president, who has a house full of strong females to keep him honest.