Last night, 2,000 people crowded into a basement ballroom at the Washington Hilton to hear President Obama give the keynote address at the National Women’s Law Center annual dinner. It was a friendly crowd that took obvious pleasure in listening to Obama recount his efforts—including some successes—to bolster the position of women in the workplace and ensure equal access to healthcare.
“Today, our daughters live in a world that is more fair than the world six years ago,” Obama told attendees. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, this is demonstrably true. While the compromise struck on abortion coverage in the Affordable Care Act was a bitter pill to swallow, the other wins for women were significant: an end to gender rating (the practice of charging women higher insurance premiums just for being female), full coverage of widely used preventive services, and the ban on pre-existing condition exclusions.
Obama also told us: “Today, it is easier for women to demand equal pay for equal work.”
Thanks to the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, that’s technically true. But Obama—and the NWLC staff—neglect to mention that the law did not go farther than correcting a 2007 Supreme Court decision that put an absurdly low cap on the time window during which women can bring an unequal pay claim. Even before that Supreme Court decision, organizations like NWLC were pushing for legislation that would address fair pay in a more structural, pro-active way. In this piece I wrote for The American Prospect when Ledbetter passed, I detailed some of the bills that would correct other injustices, like employers’ ability to retaliate if employees compare salaries (often the only way they know they are being discriminated against in the first place) and employers’ ability to claim that poor negotiation skills are to blame for unequal pay. Obama mentioned that women still earn only seventy-seven cents on the dollar, but neither he nor the hosts of the evening mentioned the fair-pay legislation that still needs to be passed for that ratio to budge.
Obama did nod to the womancession, first identified for The Nation by Bryce Covert. Many of the jobs lost in the last decade, he pointed, were in construction and manufacturing. “But over the last couple of years,” he added, “women have continued to lose jobs, especially in the public sector.” And these job losses have cascading effects: Obama noted that mothers are primary or co-breadwinners in 63 percent of households.
This brought the president to a broader point. “These issues that primarily affect women are not just women’s issues,” he said. “When women make less than men for the same work, that hurts the entire family. It hurts businesses, which have fewer customers with money to spend. When a healthcare plan denies woman coverage because of a pre-existing condition, that puts a strain on emergency rooms, drives up healthcare costs for everybody. When any of our citizens can’t fulfill their potential because of factors that have nothing to do with their talent, or their character, or their work ethic, that diminishes us.”
And he linked gender equality and development, pointing out that the countries with the best economies “the countries developing fastest, doing the best,” “those are societies that respect the rights of women.”
While I’m wary of the instrumental use of women’s rights—because empowering women is good for societies as a whole, rather than as an end in itself—it happens to be true, and properly situates women’s rights as not an auxiliary issue but one of central concern to any society attempting to advance.
The biggest applause line of the evening, though, was when Obama decried Republican attempts to defund Planned Parenthood. As far as I recall, it was the only moment when he made reference to reproductive health issues. It suggested to me that while the president understands issues facing working women as fundamental to the country as a whole, he still sees reproductive health in particular as a special interest. I was reminded of when he fumbled including birth control funding in the stimulus. He didn’t defend it, and it didn’t make it in.