President Obama’s State of the Union speech was never expected to be a policy address about women’s rights, but women were keenly listening to every line — and paying close attention to the messages between the lines, or left unsaid altogether.
The president acknowledged the alarming state of the economy, and the fierce challenges facing workers, homeowners, retirees and young people. But he did not explicitly remind Congress that women are suffering disproportionately in the current recession — seeing more foreclosures, less health care coverage, worse predatory loan practices and struggling to support their families on incomes depressed by a persistent wage gap.
The president called for better enforcement of equal pay laws; we also need stronger legislation, like the Fair Pay Act of 2007, that addresses the underlying causes of the wage gap — the most important of which is that the vast majority of workplaces in this country are severely sex-segregated. Obama also called for repeal of the military’s anti-LGBT Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, but notably through legislation rather than executive order. He criticized the recent Supreme Court decision that will “open the floodgates” to corporate money in electoral politics. He noted that his administration’s civil rights division is finally prosecuting civil rights crimes and he touted the new hate crimes law, which covers gender, sexual orientation, disability and gender identity. He championed the rights of women in Afghanistan and Iran.
NOW calls on the president to hold tight to the values and ideals that he trumpeted. This includes passing health care reform that recognizes every woman’s fundamental right to have access to the full range of health care services, including abortion and birth control. As to Obama’s request for another way to reform health care while accomplishing the goals he set out, NOW suggests a single-payer plan.
Much of President Obama’s speech centered on the economic recovery and job creation. We agree it’s essential to strengthen the middle class through tax cuts, help people get into affordable mortgages, help families pay for college educations, limit loan repayment amounts, forgive college loan debt through public service, and revitalize community colleges. But more must be done, and a domestic spending freeze would lead us in the wrong direction. It would, for example, decimate funding for many battered women’s shelters at a time when the recession is causing a spike in domestic violence rates. At the least, our swollen military budget should receive as much cost-conscious scrutiny as services for vulnerable women.
NOW was relieved when the bill to establish a “debt commission” — a stealth attempt to cut Social Security and Medicare with little ability for input from elected legislators — was blocked in Congress. The president’s decision to go ahead with such a commission anyway, by means of executive order, raises serious concerns. Millions of older people, most of them women, rely on Social Security to keep them out of deep poverty. Cuts in Social Security benefits are not the solution to the economic disaster the president inherited from his predecessor.
This is a unique moment in our history, presenting important choices and possibilities. The president was right to champion “changing the tone of politics” over “the politics of no.” We know where we stand on this equation, and where women stand. As Obama said, he does not accept second place for the U.S., and he should not accept second class status for the women of this nation.