Dear President Obama: Thank You For Being Unapologetically Feminist
This is a devastating thing to write, and I say that as a person who isn't even American: We now have to say goodbye to the Obamas, and to the most feminist president that ever held the office of commander in chief. And that's a hard thing to do.
It's been a long, weird slog for gender equality in the top spot at the White House, from John Adam's condescending response to his wife's plea to "remember the ladies" when giving the rights of representation (he said jokingly that "Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems," because "in Practice you know We are the subjects" to "the Despotism of the Petticoat") onward. The Obama White House, by contrast, was willing to put its money and its laws where its mouth was, to put gender equality into action, and to stir the pot along the way. Facing an uncertain future, we must assess this legacy as historically remarkable.
They've also been open to dissenting voices from women. Malala Yousafzai, feminist heroine to an entire generation for surviving a shot to the head by the Taliban while attempting to get an education, met the Obamas to make criticisms of drone warfare, for example. Now that President Donald Trump has taken office, I, for one, hope that the sheer precedent of feminist triumph in his predecessor leaves him a little bit cowed, and a little less prone to take away the freedoms Obama gave women.
He Set A New Standard Of Feminist Expectation
We'll have to deal with a lot of contrasts in the next few years as the glow of President Obama fades, but one of the most notable will be the outspokenness of Obama's commitment to feminist principles, and the fact that he simply took it as read that the president should, indeed must, be a feminist. In the Obama White House, being a feminist president was not regarded as abnormal or particularly strange; it was simply fact. He noted, in his essay in Glamour in 2016, that "it’s important that [Malia and Sasha's] dad is a feminist, because now that’s what they expect of all men."
The representational power of a vocal feminist as POTUS seemed to make the expectation more universal — but it clearly wasn't a slam dunk, as the pendulum has now swung so radically the other way. If nothing else, the transition from Obama to Trump shows just how far we still have to go when it comes to our expectations of people in power and how they treat women's rights. We can't take it for granted, which makes Obama and his family's commitment to women's rights even more special.
He Talked The Talk...
It's been a brilliant eight years having a president who simply comes out with feminist things on the regular, not because he appears to believe it's a pertinent time for something female-oriented, but because it's an integral part of his ideology as American leader. A few days ago he talked about his recommended reading lists for his daughters, and included both The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing and The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, both classics of feminist literature. And he's spoken up on women's rights in everything from health care choices to workplace inequality to the 19th Amendment's anniversary. He hosted the White House Summit on the United State Of Women, and told the assembled press that "this is what a feminist looks like." And it was.
... And Legislated The Walk
The Lilly Ledbetter Act, signed into law in 2009, lengthened the time in which a person could bring a pay discrimination claim against a company, and in 2014, the National Women's Law Center declared it "a law that works," adding that the Act "made it clear that each discriminatory — and not just an employer’s original decision to engage in pay discrimination — resets the period of time during which a worker may file a claim of pay discrimination on the basis of sex, race, national origin, age, religion and disability."
But that wasn't the end of Obama's legacy in law. Caitlin Morelli, assessing his legacy in 2015, noted that he established the National Equal Pay Enforcement Task Force in 2010 to monitor pay equality in federal agencies, and signed an executive order in 2014 allowing all federal co-workers to openly disclose pay information. Even though his attempts to pass the Equal Pay Act were stymied by Congress, it's fair to say he made life easier for women to seek redress under the law for workplace discrimination.
That wasn't the end of it, either. The Sexual Assault Survivor's Bill of Rights, which Obama signed into law in 2016, mandates how rape kits are managed under federal law, something that has been a huge issue in recent years. It was only effective on the federal level, but it's a signal of serious hope to rape survivors across the United States.
He Made An International Impact On The Rights Of Women
One of the most powerful initiatives for feminism launched from the Obama White House was Let Girls Learn, the organization founded to get girls across the world into education in order to give them better chances. Education for girls matters hugely to the pursuit of equality, from economic empowerment to the ability to make more considered choices about family planning. Obama also encouraged feminist principles to be more firmly entrenched in Kenya on a foreign trip in 2015.
He Took No S--t About Sexism On The Campaign Trail In 2016
The feminist moment we may remember most brilliantly (and most sadly, considering what came afterward) from the campaign trail for the presidency was Michelle Obama's incendiary, brutal speech condemning Donald Trump's sexism without ever saying his name. And yet her husband didn't take any s--t about double standards towards the two candidates, either. He noted that at a rally in Columbus, Ohio, in November. "When a guy is ambitious and out in the public arena and working hard, well that’s OK,” Obama said, “but when a woman suddenly does it, suddenly you’re all like, ‘Well, why’s she doing that?’" He raised the question multiple times in the media, in his usual considered, eloquent way. It was pretty great, to be honest.
Obamacare Is Inherently Feminist
Obamacare is one of the most feminist bits of legislation in decades. It saved women huge amounts on contraception, helping them make better contraceptive choices and have more control over their lives; it gave breastfeeding women space and time to breastfeed at work; it allowed millions of women to access preventative care like mammograms with no co-pay; and it worked vigorously to address the massive pay imbalance between men and women's health insurance, in which women often had to pay up to 80 percent more for coverage and couldn't get covered for "pre-existing conditions" like pregnancy or past breast cancer.
If it's repealed, birth control alone may cost women $1.4 billion a year. Women's health is a feminist issue, our right to effective and safe contraception and maternity services is a key part of our rights as humans, and President Obama got it. We'll certainly miss you.