03/14/2012 06:38 pm ET Updated May 14, 2012

Sexual Politics and Family Values: Let's Get It Right

President Obama's commencement address at Barnard College this May is the latest salvo in the offensive against the Republicans in their "war on women." The alumnae of my alma mater are in a tizzy, as is Columbia, jealous of the women's college across the street for scoring this big one.

For NYC navel-gazers, this is titillating stuff, especially when the top editor at the New York Times, the first woman to be so anointed, was bumped in favor of the President. An adjustment that Barnard's own president, Debora Spar, finessed with supreme diplomacy, citing, for some historic perspective, Adlai Stevenson's mid-twentieth-century campaign address, in which he urged the female graduates of Smith to influence men through the "humble role of housewife."

Obama's transparent quest for our votes is already bearing fruit. Jill Abramson, the ousted commencement speaker, is graciously doing her part: "Obama Campaign Plans Big Effort to Court Women," headlined both cyber and paper "editions" of the Times this past weekend. So are the alumnae of the women's college of the moment, noted in some recent LinkedIn activity. "Barnard Alumnae for Obama," exhorted one woman, in her comment, which also, conveniently, includes a link to make a donation to the campaign.

In this war, Obama, with whom my progressive soul does daily battle, is on the right side, and my second-wave feminist heart is a-fluttering. From the Iowa caucuses to the Super Tuesday primaries, this campaign season has been a horror for women and children, bookended by Rick Santorum's rant against early childhood education and Rush Limbaugh's recent atrocity, "woman, thy name is slut" -- shades of the Madonna-Whore dialectic -- which is rankling even the unflappable, and skeptical, post-feminist generation.

Here's Rick Santorum, father of seven, husband of former women's rights advocate turned home-schooling Catholic, and birth control opponent on the dangers of "Big Brother"-sponsored early care and education, "The government wants their hand on your children as fast as they can," he warned in a town hall meeting in Iowa, referring to "early starts, pre-early starts, and early-early starts" as "indoctrination that only a socialist could love." And Limbaugh's comment, predictably, set off an avalanche of responses, including our president's heartfelt, if politically shrewd, phone call to Sandra Fluke, inspired by his concern that his own daughters feel free to "engage in issues they care about," even ones with which he disagrees.

With all due respect to Obama, whose support for women is welcome, we're so beyond the question of free civic discourse. That we're quibbling about the right to contraception in 2012 is terrifying. While women's voices must be heard, policies that support women and their families, and the future citizens they spawn, are sorely lacking in the U.S., a country that pays lip service to mother, apple pie, and family values, but refuses to walk the talk.

I have a long list, but here are my three top priorities:

  • Paid family leave
  • Universal, high-quality early childhood education

Now that Australia's joined the pack, the U.S. can claim the dubious distinction of being the only country in the developed world without paid family leave. In spite of the administration's landmark Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge initiative, high-quality early childhood education is a perennial on the chopping block -- in cities, states, and nationally -- and struggles to make it into ongoing K-12 debates. Finally -- and critically -- we still deny the impact of poverty and other social factors in the shaping of the next generation. This, in spite of the incontrovertible evidence: the majority of women with children under three in the workforce; the dizzying pace of brain development in the earliest years; the growing knowledge, based on neuroscience, that school readiness begins long before our youngest students enter kindergarten; and the nation's persistent achievement gaps.

It's high time that the U.S. joined the community of peer nations that are nurturing and sustaining the most precious resource we have: human capital.