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Barack Obama, Feminist in Chief? | The Nation

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Subject to Debate

Barack Obama, Feminist in Chief?

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"Can't we just be happy for five minutes?" my daughter asks when I tell her about the criticisms Barack Obama is getting from some feminists I know. "It's not that I don't care about sexism. I do! But we have four whole years to complain." Inauguration day is over a month away, but on e-mail lists I belong to, Obama's already chauvinist in chief. He made sexist theorizer Larry Summers director of the National Economic Council. He's turned Michelle Obama, a top-notch lawyer, into a stay-home helpmeet and fashion plate. Barbara Walters's interview with the Obamas comes in for special opprobrium: Barack interrupted Michelle, patronized her ("When Mama's happy, everybody's happy") and on the all-important question of what kind of puppy they would get the children, said it wasn't going to be a (uh-oh) "girly dog" like Walters's beloved Havanese. Not the best choice of words, although I'm with him on little yappy dogs. When I watched the interview on YouTube, I thought the Obamas were great together: affectionate, teasing but respectful, funny, smart, delightful. Barack came across as probably the most involved father to sit in the Senate, let alone the White House, in 200 years. Yes, he interrupted Michelle, but she also interrupted him--and Walters interrupted them both.

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Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her "Subject to...

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For some women who care about women's equality, the jury is still out on Obama. They voted for him, but they don't trust him to do the right thing for women. Left feminists aren't impressed that he's nominating Hillary Clinton for secretary of state. Mainstream feminists like Salon's Rebecca Traister are disquieted by the "momification" of Michelle. No one has forgotten that Barack called a reporter "sweetie" months ago at a press conference.

Somehow the feminist positions Obama has taken--on reproductive rights, pay equity, domestic violence, Title IX--don't seal the deal. And neither does his support for healthcare and unions and early childhood education and raising the minimum wage--things that, while not gender-specific, will enormously improve the lives of women, perhaps even more than they improve the lives of men.

I don't share the suspicions, the sense of disappointment-in-advance. But I think I understand what's going on. Women's progress has been sluggish for decades--we're still not even 18 percent of Congress, there's only one woman on the Supreme Court, parking lot attendants still make more than childcare workers, marriage is not usually a partnership of equals. Educated working women, who we tend to hear from the most, especially if they are journalists, struggle to fulfill--with not enough help from husbands and almost none from society--the demands of man-size jobs while satisfying standards of motherhood that have become so exacting the Virgin Mary herself would call for a martini. During the Bush years the sense of possibility contracted dramatically, to blaze up with the Hillary Clinton campaign. Never mind that Hillary didn't actually do much for women as either first lady or senator, except in the area of reproductive rights, and that she and Barack had few relevant policy differences. She was a symbol of redress--finally!--for all those pent-up justifiable grievances and frustrations.

Obama needs to meet that longing for a big leap forward. He needs to become a truly feminist president. That means more than protecting reproductive rights and appointing lots of women to significant positions in his administration, important as those things are. And it means more than rolling back the worst effects of the Bush years through laws like the Fair Pay Restoration Act. Basically this would return women's right to sue for pay discrimination to what it was before the Supreme Court narrowed it in Ledbetter v. Goodyear. If women are to move forward, we need to move beyond a piecemeal approach.

Obama can't make fathers stay home half the time a child is sick, and he can't make Chris Matthews stop being a jerk about women. But he can take a leaf from the book of Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and make gender equality a keystone of his administration. For example, he can set up a task force to review law and policy on welfare, Social Security, unemployment and tax policy to rectify outmoded assumptions that disadvantage women. Did you know, for example, that most working wives do better if they take their husbands' Social Security benefit over their own, so in effect they pay into the system and get nothing back? That a stay-home wife whose husband made $50,000 a year gets more in Social Security benefits than a working wife in a couple where each made $25,000? That welfare reform keeps low-income single mothers from getting an education?

The economic stimulus is a great place to start addressing gender inequality. In a recent Boston Globe op-ed, "The Macho Stimulus Plan," economist Randy Albelda points out that the jobs Obama talks about--building roads, bridges and schools, developing eco-friendly technologies--are overwhelmingly held by men. It would be nice if suddenly half of construction workers were female, but given that they're now 2.7 percent, realistically that is not going to happen. Even doubling or tripling the small number of women in the relevant job categories would be a stretch. Albelda proposes an additional stimulus plan, for the female side of the economy: "Caring for those who cannot care for themselves, healthcare, and primary education are the very foundation of a civil society. Investing in these outcomes is as vital to our long-term economic health as airports, highways, wind turbines, and energy-retrofitted buildings." Not only do these jobs disproportionately employ women, she points out, but "investments in direct care, education, and healthcare would also go a long way in alleviating poverty."

"We need to put pressure on him now, about concrete policies," historian Linda Gordon, co-founder of Feminists for Obama, told me. "You can be sure that's what the right is doing."

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