The President often speaks about the strong women who have helped shape his life – his mother who raised him mostly as a single parent, his grandmother who worked for years in a bank but lost out on jobs after hitting the glass ceiling, and his wife and daughters who have provided the immeasurable strength of family and have been the foundation of his support. The diverse roles that women play in their families, in the workplace, and in society are core themes that have figured prominently in the policy changes advanced by the President throughout his time in office and are an important part of his legacy.
Women increasingly are central to the economic security and sustainability of most American families, particularly families of color. Thus, ensuring that both women and men can participate fully in the workforce is essential to fostering greater equality, promoting family stability, and maximizing workers’ success. The President’s work has resulted in significant and sometimes groundbreaking initiatives that have fundamentally changed the landscape, not only for women, but also men and working families.
The first law the President signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in January 2009. This action was significant not only because it restored critical protections for workers seeking to file pay discrimination claims, but also because it signaled the importance of equal pay and pay discrimination to the administration. That legislation was followed by the creation of an inter-agency Council on Women and Girls and later a White House Equal Pay Task Force for key federal agencies engaged in equal pay enforcement. The President also undertook a series of executive actions aimed at eliminating unfair pay practices, strengthening enforcement of equal pay laws, and raising wages. Particularly noteworthy were the revisions to the Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standards Act regulations to extend minimum wage protections to home care workers. This change removed a longstanding barrier to fair pay experienced by care workers, who are mostly female and disproportionately women of color. These jobs are often among the lowest paying jobs, and the rule change made clear the importance of paying all workers a fair wage. Moreover, it directly confronted persistent gender, racial, and ethnic biases that have devalued jobs perceived as “women’s work” and placed these workers on more equal footing with other workers.
The President also pursued a complement of policy changes to respond to the often competing demands of work and family. He announced executive actions requiring paid sick days for workers working on federal contracts, and directed federal agencies to review and strengthen their work-family policies to afford maximum flexibility for workers. He pushed for universal pre-kindergarten programs and greater investments in child care to provide more children and parents with high-quality, affordable options. He also made a public call for the adoption of a national paid family and medical leave program, elevating the issue into the national spotlight and leading to unprecedented attention among candidates. Further, through the Department of Labor, he provided grants to states to allow them to explore ways to develop paid family leave programs in their own communities. All of these policies are critical for women, who typically take on more of the caregiving responsibilities in their families. These policies are especially important for women of color and low-income women, both of whom are far less likely to have access to these types of supports.
Perhaps even more importantly, the President has used the power of the bully pulpit that the presidency affords to shed light on and reject the underlying attitudes and biases that have fueled many of the barriers women experience at work, at home, and in the broader society. He celebrated women’s intellectual leadership and excellence by appointing two women to the United States Supreme Court, including the first Latino justice to serve on the Court. He has spoken powerfully about pernicious stereotypes that have been used to denigrate African American women and girls, and has proudly claimed the mantle of feminism in celebrating expanding opportunities for women. There are many more examples of the President challenging gendered stereotypes: he opened up more combat roles for women in the military, supported an initiative to increase research into the unique challenges facing women of color, introduced an aggressive initiative to combat sexual assault on campuses across the country, and adopted rules expanding our understanding of gender to embrace equality for LGBTQ individuals.
At the heart of this work is a narrative that advances a vision of women’s roles as more expansive and inclusive, one that recognizes the need for all women to determine their own destiny without being held back by antiquated attitudes. Moreover, because of the policy changes that he has pursued, his work has helped to normalize the types of policies that should be part of every workplace and set a baseline of basic standards that every worker should enjoy. While there is certainly more work to do, this shift has been essential to women’s equality and feminist progress.
Working on these issues as the First Lady’s Policy Director gave me a unique perspective. Nowhere do all of the different roles that women often play – from worker, to parent, to executive, to teacher, and more – collide more visibly than in the unique role of First Lady, which brings with it conflicting public expectations about women’s roles and the comfort level with them. The fact that the First Lady is the first African American to assume the role further accentuated the conflicted public expectations inherent in the role; at times, biases emerged. Although many pundits sought to confine her to one easily defined box, her approach – and example – was to embrace multiple roles, as most women do; these roles cut across any singular stereotype. Thus, on any given day she could be a powerful advocate for groundbreaking child nutrition reforms or for mobilizing support for military families, a host for numerous official visits and events, a volunteer in the community, an inspirational coach urging young people to pursue their education, a mentor to young women in her own mentoring program, a self-described “Mom-in-Chief” focusing on the needs of her own family, or some other role. And, those are choices that every woman should have.
In February 2009, the First Lady visited Mary’s Center, a community health center serving mostly Hispanic, immigrant, and African American patients in the surrounding Washington, D.C. community. She read to children, visited with teens in an after-school program, and met with experts and staff about the health and work challenges that patients faced. The visit was memorable not only because it was her first solo official visit outside of the White House and into the local community, but also because it foreshadowed many of the work-family supports – such as child care, health care, job training, and more – that the President would champion over the next eight years. Near the end of her visit, she said to a group of students: “I didn’t come to this position with a lot of wealth and a lot of resources….I think it’s real important for young kids, particularly kids who come from communities without resources to see me. Not the First Lady, but to see that there is no magic to me sitting here.”
Her words captured what may be the most important, albeit intangible, part of the President’s legacy – the push for a new normal. To make clear that the progress we’ve made is not about magic. Rather, our progress is firmly in our hands and will hinge on our commitment to being engaged and inclusive, to ask hard questions, to reject prejudice, and to push for change. That means a shift in vision, and in the policies that can support and sustain that vision over time. A shift so that our views about women’s opportunities and how all women are valued are not defined by past limitations but future aspirations. So that workplace policies enabling both women and men to respond to work and family obligations are no longer the exception but the new normal playing field for workers. So that for millions of young people and a new generation, the thought of an African American President, First Lady, and family in the White House will seem not like a one-time occurrence or magic, but in every sense, a normal part of our American democracy.
Ms. Jocelyn Frye
Deputy Assistant to the President and
Director of Policy and Special Projects for the First Lady