Photo: Pete Souza

Let's Take a Minute to Recognize: The Obamas Were the First Open Feminists in the White House

United States Activism
by Alexandra Marx Dec 23, 2016

Although the cause of feminism has made significant advances during the last eight years, much of the Obamas’ work falls under that hard-to-define second-wave tactic known as ‘consciousness raising.’

Statistics are often too slow-moving for this type of political action to be appreciable. And yet, calling a national summit on the state of women and penning a confessional feminist essay in Glamour Magazine seem good indicators to me that our 44th president successfully heightened the national consciousness. But in the wake of Hillary’s defeat I’m reminded that the number of women in US politics is embarrassingly low when compared with other industrialized countries — and also reminded that female leaders are often referred to by their first names while men, more often than not, by their family names. Our sensationalized morning headlines promise us that the glass ceiling is as impenetrable as its ever been.

A female president is not the only way we accomplish feminist goals, however, and no movement can retain momentum without taking the time to celebrate its successes. So as us feminists brace ourselves for the next eight years and sharpen our weapons, here’s a short and incomplete list of some recent reasons I celebrate:

We’ve seen the well-deserved appointment of two new female Supreme Court justices.

With Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joining Ruth Ginsburg on the US Supreme Court, this court seats more women than ever before. Obama also appointed 138 female federal judges during the last eight years, which is the highest number of women appointees to be made by any president in history. As we watch the quickly changing tides of the executive branch and the House, our judiciary system remains a bedrock — and the two appointees Obama was permitted will be shaping policy for years to come.

The Affordable Care Act has further secured reproductive rights, guaranteed 20 million women free contraception, and made illegal any insurance practices that would require women to pay higher premiums than men.

Roe v. Wade and the ACA may both come under fire in coming years; the right to choose may be wrenched away from individual citizens in an alleged defense of states’ rights. And yet, for women half of the ideological battle is won because sex education in schools is up and teen birthrate is down. Although no single cause, even one as charismatic as Obama, can take full credit for the latter achievement, the teenagers themselves are proving to be more level-headed than the country’s public sentiment. Young girls are realizing that motherhood is one of many roles a woman can aspire to and that it is within their power to decide which of these they achieve and when. We can follow their example and remember that a woman’s choices have never been subject to legislation, even when legislators believe otherwise.

The gender wage gap was one of the dominant issues during this past election cycle for both presidential candidates and junior congressmen.

Economists from the Bush era may continue to dispute scientific evidence, but, much like climate change, the wage gap is gradually being accepted as fact. During the last several years, discussions have turned from wage gap-denial to questions of how best to address the prejudice women continue to experience throughout their professional lives. In 2014, Obama signed into effect two executive orders in the service of ending any remnants of institutionalized gender wage gap.

For me, the Obama years have made good on the campaign promise of hope, due in large part to the thoughtful discussions he fosters in domestic policy debates. Not many leaders could have so skillfully maneuvered the topics we’ve seen Obama bring to the national foreground: women in combat and sexual violence on college campuses — non-exclusive and urgent women’s rights issues that do not appear as such when first rejected by the public gag reflex.

These moments of success all share in a dour subtext, of course. Each accomplishment of the last eight years also recalls the extremist resistance that we were met with at the federal, state, and local levels; the protests of men and women still ensnared by old-world gender hierarchy and deaf to the historical significance of women’s rights. When women cringe at the word feminism, exalt the word feminine, and conflate inequity with love, we must realize that the symptoms of Stockholm syndrome are not solved by a dogmatist or a logician.

We must study Obama’s successful initiatives after celebrating them. The feminist movement, confused and divergent though it may be currently, has enjoyed important successes while a feminist held the highest office. Now, we must not let the dialogue die. We must not underestimate the power of our words or let our fears deter us from fighting for equality where it is fettered.

The central purpose of the as yet inarticulate third-wave will necessarily be in consciousness raising. Even though it doesn’t make for flashy headlines or dramatic law-making, the conversations we’re having around the dinner table, with neighbors, spouses and friends, are the fodder of feminist causes. The last eight years have shown that we can help to accelerate the inevitable slow death of institutionalized sexism where it still exists in the US — we can hear the desperate death rattle if we listen closely (it sounds eerily like like an over-privileged white man whining).

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were the first open feminists to sit in the White House. That it could happen at all is evidence of hope and change and for that, we can celebrate.

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