The goal of this article is to evaluate how women and women's issues have fared during President's Obama's first term. We'll examine the entire four years in order to gauge progress and unresolved shortcomings.
Those of you who have followed my writings here and at the Daily Beast, know I was an early critic of Obama on women's issues. To his credit, I have watched Obama evolve since then. To wit, his recent appointment of Debbie Wasserman Schultz to DNC Chair, after he irked women's group early in his term by selecting anti-choice Tim Kaine. Whether Obama's evolution is personal growth or politically motivated, I will leave to you, the reader, to decide.
I need to lay out two disclaimers. First, Obama is not directly accountable for all metrics. For example, as relates to jobs, he cannot direct gender hiring preferences in the private sector (although, he can lead by example). Second, this article does not examine whether the GOP offers a better alternative in areas of weakness. For example, while Obama's efforts on the Paycheck Fairness Act may be disappointing, the GOP is patently against legislative equal pay, period. Let's begin.
1. Supreme Court Appointments: A+
During his presidency, Obama appointed two Supreme Court Justices: Sonia Sotomayor and Elana Kagan. Obama gets an 'A' for boosting women's representation to 33% and a 'plus' for appointing our first Latina to the SCOTUS.
2. Equal Pay: C
Here's the bottom line: the Obama administration failed women on equal pay. When Obama entered office, the Paycheck Fairness Act ("PFA") had already passed in the House. For two years, while the Democrats had a strong majority in the Senate, the administration lapsed on pushing to bring the PFA to the Senate floor. The Democrats finally did try after the disastrous November 2010 elections, but the motion fell two votes short. In a largely symbolic effort, the Democrats tried again this year and failed. The Fair Pay Act which Obama signed on his first day in office does nothing to legislate equal pay for equal work; rather, it extends the period to file litigation.
3. Sexual Violence Against Women and Girls: A
The Obama administration gets major cred for taking on the escalating crisis of violence against teenage and college women. A recent Department of Justice study estimated that 1 in 4 college women are victims of sexually assault, and colleges often fail to take action. Last year, VP Biden announced an effort to ensure that schools, colleges and universities protect students from sexual violence. This effort led to immediate change at schools like Stanford which lowered it's standard of proof for sexual assault. Obama and Biden have also voiced support for the reauthorization of an inclusive VAWA bill.
4. Inner Circle and Cabinet: C
Last Sunday's New York Times extolled Valerie Jarrett's access to Obama. Sadly, Jarrett is the exception, not the rule, for Obama's inner circle. Chris Matthews recently lamented on Hardball that when Hillary steps down, Obama will have an all male line up in top administration positions (go to 1:45). Women occupy only six cabinet level positions in the Obama administration, equivalent to George W. Bush as he left office (including Susan Rice, which Obama does in his six). Additionally, Obama has appointed women to fewer cabinet level positions than Bill Clinton in their respective first terms.
5. Reproductive Rights: B-
In 2010, to the dismay of women's groups, Obama reneged on his pledge to support choice when he signed an executive order enshrining the Hyde Amendment in order to pass healthcare reform. His administration was again criticized last year by women advocates for overriding the FDA recommendation (a first for HHS) on the sale of the Morning After pills. However, in the latter part of his term, Obama has turned it around, unabashedly standing by women for contraception and other healthcare coverage. As a side note, during his first term, Obama has remained largely silent as an unparalleled record of almost 100 abortion restrictions were put in place at the state level in 2011 alone.
6. Jobs: C
The job's recovery under Obama has been dubbed a 'He-recovery.' In the two years from June 2009 to May 2011, Pew Research Survey found men gained 768,000 jobs while women lost 218,000. Not only did men of every race, ethnicity and nativity outperforming their female counterparts; they also took jobs from women in fields like manufacturing, retail and finance. Under Obama, poverty remained stubbornly high, and, as reported this week by the United States Census Bureau, increasingly disproportionately impacts women.
7. Sexism: B-
For the first three years of his term, Obama showed no discernible awareness for sexism. All that changed after comments made by Rush Limbaugh about Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke. Obama strongly rebuked Rush, pronouncing those type of words have no place in our national discourse. Months later, Obama publicly excoriated Todd Akin for this comments on rape and pregnancy, noting a bunch of men should not be making healthcare decisions for women.
8. White House Work Environment: C
The Obama administration got off to an inauspicious start as the White House was dubbed a 'boy's club' (with ample evidence). When the media noticed that women were excluded from Obama's golf foursomes and basketball games, Obama exacerbated the problem by flippantly responding, "Bunk." He seemed ill-at-ease in the company of women early on, prompting the executive editor of MORE to wonder, Would Obama Talk to Women Over Beers? More sinister, senior women claimed they were excluded and demeaned in the Obama White House. The nadir was when Anita Dunn's statements to author Ron Suskind, in which she referred to the Obama White House was a "hostile workplace" for women, became public. Obama seems aware of this problem, and has taken a proactive leadership role and affirmative steps towards improvement.
9. Women Running the Economy: D-
At the start of his term, Obama irked women's groups by appointing Larry Summers for National Economic Council Director. Concerns about Summers' ability to work with women were validated when Christina Romer, the only woman leading a major economic agency, resigned among rumors of friction with Summers (and Geithner). Currently, all four major economic agencies are run by men. Shelia Bair, former Chairwoman of the FDIC (appointed by George W. Bush), stepped down last year amid speculation of sexist treatment. Mary Schapiro, Chairwoman of the SEC, announced she plans to step down this fall. Unless Obama replaces her with a woman, his administration will have no woman in high-level positions overseeing financial markets.