10/18/2012 07:01 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2012

The Personal Is Political for Obama

"The personal is political" is perhaps the most famous rallying cry of second-wave feminists who in the 1960s and '70s worked to expand women's reproductive rights and insure workplace equality. This reminder of how intimate relationships and family structures reflect political realities has special resonance in understanding the second presidential debate. Obama and Romney's opposing responses to workplace inequality and reproductive issues highlight the different role women have had in their lives.

Recent studies by economists and sociologists have shown that parenting daughters leads to increased feminist sympathies. The work of Yale University's Ebonya Washington quantifies this phenomenon, demonstrating that "each daughter increases a congress person's propensity to vote liberally, particularly on reproductive rights issues." Among the many differences between Governor Romney and President Obama is the fact that while Romney is the father of five boys, Obama has two daughters. This fact does not suggest that simply because Romney does not have daughters he is unable to sympathize with women; there are plenty of men without daughters who recognize, among other issues of importance to women, the need to safeguard a woman's access to contraception and abortion providers. However, the governor's comments at the second debate demonstrate a startling disconnect to the challenges women face.

Let's compare how the candidates responded to the question about gender inequality in the workplace. Obama began by describing how he was raised by a single mom and was also profoundly influenced by his grandmother, a woman who became vice president of a local bank despite never attending college. He then reminded the audience that the first bill he signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act which by amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964 helps to insure that equal-pay lawsuits are not bound by a 180-day statute of limitations. His response was an apt illustration of how the personal is political as he linked the experiences of his female relatives to the importance of the Ledbetter Act.

By contrast, Romney mentioned no specific women in his response. Instead he now infamously stated that while governor of Massachusetts he set out to diversify his cabinet and sought "binders full of women." This story has since proved to be highly misleading. In fact, the number of women in high-level positions declined sharply under his tenure. Romney also did not seek out those binders. A bipartisan alliance of women's groups gathered a list of female candidates prior to the election. Romney used the question on workplace inequality to talk again about the economy, stating, "I'm going to help women in America get good work by getting a stronger economy." For Romney, work opportunities alone are apparently sufficient to guarantee the livelihood of women. But that position ignores the many abiding gender inequalities that still plague working women. Allowing a female employee to have more flexible hours does nothing, for example, to guarantee that she makes the same amount of money as her male co-workers. Though Romney has stated that as president he would not repeal the Ledbetter Act, he did not support the bill as it moved through Congress.

Obama has already been called our "first female president" as well as our "first woman president." Notwithstanding our president's easy rapport with the women of The View and his often conciliatory speaking style, Obama is better understood as a man who simply understands the foundations of feminism. This was most sharply delineated in the second debate during a discussion that was not specifically about gender. When asked about immigration, Obama spoke of "my daughter or yours" who may look "to somebody like they're not a citizen." Although the discussion about immigration was not related to gender, Obama instinctively thought of what impact Romney's proposal would have on his daughter. For our president, the personal is absolutely political.