Here's the good news: President Obama's State of the Union address was centered around the middle-class economy, which means a spotlight was shone on those little-talked-about issues that greatly affect women. Paid sick days, mandated maternity leave, living wages, and universal childcare all received prime-time treatment — and rightfully so. When women make up two-thirds of the minimum-wage workforce, and paid maternity leave continues to be an anomaly rather than the norm, it's obvious that the growing income inequality in America has burdened the average American woman who's just trying to get by.
Obama delivered for working women and their families on Tuesday, calling on both Congress and the American people to support his new initiatives on paid maternity leave, mandated earned sick leave, and raising the minimum wage. The president's push for stronger workers' rights legislation, as well as his affirmation for reproductive health care, received applause from many women's organizations, including Planned Parenthood. Cecile Roberts, the organization's president, said in a statement sent to Bustle:
Like the President, we believe all women — no matter where they live or how much money they make — deserve a fair shot and a chance to pursue their dreams. That begins with recognizing that for women, the ability to decide whether and when to have children is key to economic success."
But despite his optimistic address, the president left out a slew of pertinent women's issues that have been at the forefront of American politics over the last few years. Both on-campus and military sexual assault failed to receive a mention, even though lawmakers in the House and Senate have been actively pushing for tougher legislation to curtail sexual violence.
It's a surprise omission, considering that some of the Senate's most powerful women players, including Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO), have introduced groundbreaking measures to make college campuses safer for young women, while also holding colleges and universities accountable for failing to protect sexual assault victims. Gillibrand also invited sexual assault survivor and activist Emma Sulkowicz to sit beside her at the State of the Union. Sulkowicz gained national attention in 2014 for carrying her dorm mattress around Columbia University until her alleged rapist was either expelled from campus or graduated.
As for sexual violence in the military, Gillibrand recently reintroduced her Military Justice Improvement Act, which would create more transparency in military sexual assault prosecutions. The bill was just five votes short in 2014, and needs bipartisan support.
Paid maternity leave, too, was brushed off too quickly. The president announced last week that he planned to sign a memorandum granting federal employees at least six weeks of paid maternity — or paternity — leave, which would be unprecedented in America. Obama promised last week to urge Congress to pass nationwide paid maternity leave legislation, but the president's plan remains far too vague. On Tuesday, he failed to say what kind of paid maternity leave legislation he would like to see in America, nor did he expand on why paid leave is ultimately good for women and business.
Although Obama sprinkled references to health care (and the recent success of the Affordable Care Act) throughout his speech, there was only veiled discussion of birth control coverage — and the recent attacks on contraception by his Republican foes.
And what about abortion rights, which are already under attack in the Republican-controlled Congress? The president said "every woman should have access to the health care she needs," but he largely avoided talking about abortion access and the realities millions of women of reproductive age currently face. How can women access abortion care when clinics continue to close across large swaths of the United States, or when Congress wants to pass a 20-week abortion ban?
Some reproductive rights activists felt Obama inadvertently stigmatized abortion by juxtaposing a woman's right to choose with the historic low abortion and teen pregnancy rates. The president meant to highlight that accessible birth control — which researchers have found is primarily responsible for these low rates — is working, but he may have put a negative spin on abortion in the process.
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