How President Obama Spoke About Women In His Final State Of The Union Address Was Subtle But Powerful
In his several years as president, President Obama has worked hard to put women's issues on the map and on the up and up. He has worked to level the playing the field between men and women for healthcare costs, he has called for equal pay, and he has challenged universities, businesses, and other groups across the country to reduce sexual assault and violence against women. On Tuesday night, Obama took a more subtle approach to women's issues during his final State of the Union address — and they were so subtle, that they just might have worked.
When it comes to women's issues, Obama brought up the pay gap, paid family leave, and education during what was probably his final primetime address to the nation as president. He also spoke to his successes and his priorities in other areas, including the economy, national security, and healthcare reform. Heading into the speech, national security was probably at the front of many Americans' minds thanks to news earlier in the day that two U.S. naval ships had been seized in Iranian waters. This news didn't appear to affect the president's speech, although it's almost certain that Obama budgeted time to cover off all of these important issues, including national security, even before learning about the situation overseas. Even despite the news, Obama still managed to live up to his reputation as the most feminist president in history.
In the introductory portion of his address, Obama explained what he wouldn't focus on throughout the night — and that included women's issues like equal pay and paid family leave. He grouped these two issues with raising the minimum wage, making it clear that they're not just women's issues, but economic issues — and then he moved on to talk in-depth about the economy. At first thought, it may seem like brushing over these two important economic issues for women's rights is snub at them, but it's almost more as if this was the president's way of signaling that these issues are important and lending credibility to them without getting into the nitty-gritty, heavily partisan debate over them.
Later in his speech, Obama referenced the need for increasing access to education for girls around the world. Again, he did so subtly. In fact, his statement was part of a larger discussion of what changes are happening in our world today. Once again, the subtlety of his statement gives the cause for girls' education legitimacy in a conversation that doesn't revolve solely around women's issues.
We live in a time of extraordinary change — change that's reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet, and our place in the world. It's change that promises amazing medical breakthroughs, but also economic disruptions that strain working families. It promises education for girls in the most remote villages, but also connects terrorists plotting an ocean away.
Perhaps even more subtle, Obama used female-specific pronouns when discussing a hypothetical child scientist later on.
I see it in the Dreamer who stays up late to finish her science project, and the teacher who comes in early because he knows she might someday cure a disease.
In this case, the reference to the empowerment of women and girls is subtle yet hard to miss. By using a female pronoun, Obama is choosing to encourage the idea that we need more women in science, technology, engineering, and math — the so-called "STEM" fields. The fact that he doesn't say that outright, though, shows that we're at a point where we might notice that he's making a point in using the female pronoun, but we also might just glaze right over it without another thought.
In Obama's speech, the feminism came across so subtly that it seemed like second nature. For Obama, such feminism probably is second nature. In using such subtle feminism in his speech, Obama seemed to call for this second-nature approach to feminism on a society-wide level.