What does the Obama presidency mean for women, especially in a time of financial crisis?  We’re pleased to have a guest post today from Lisa Levenstein, assistant professor of history at UNC-Greensboro and author of A Movement Without Marches: African American Women and the Politics of Poverty in Postwar Philadelphia, which we will publish May 1 (we’re accepting orders now). In her book, Levenstein explores what led poor African American women to turn to government services, what constraints came with those services, and how women fought against stereotypes that labeled them lazy or dependent and their children “illegitimate.” By offering up poor women’s voices regarding child care, education, domestic violence, health care, and sex discrimination, Levenstein’s book gives us good background for considering what is most essential for women and families in dire economic times. Here, she considers what women’s equality in an Obama administration looks like, and what evidence of that vision we can see in the first couple of months of his administration.

Obama signs the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. photo: AP/Ron Edmonds
President Obama signs the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. photo AP/Ron Edmonds

After Barack Obama secured the Democratic presidential nomination, pundits asked whether the women who supported Senator Hillary Clinton would transfer their allegiances to her rival. Now that the dust has settled, it is clear is that whether women supported Obama’s initial bid for president or not, those interested in progressive social change view his election as a tremendous opportunity to advance their goals.

Almost immediately after he took office, Obama enacted two of his campaign promises to the women’s lobby. First, he reversed Bush’s “global gag rule” preventing foreign NGO’s from receiving U.S. family planning assistance if they provide abortion counseling, information, or referrals. The gag rule was first instituted by Ronald Reagan, repealed by Bill Clinton, then re-instated by President George W. Bush on his first day of office. In overturning the rule, Obama has enabled a broader range of NGOs working to improve women’s health across the globe to receive U.S. funding.

Obama next moved to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, making it easier for workers to sue their employers for pay discrimination. As with his support for the NGOs, Obama had signaled his support for the Ledbetter Act before the election. He frequently discussed Ms. Ledbetter’s experiences with sexism and wage discrimination during his presidential campaign and she stumped for him on the campaign trail on several occasions.

Yet if the gag rule and the Ledbetter Act represented expected shows of support for women’s issues, Obama’s economic stimulus plan presented uncharted new terrain. Here was a plan not geared specifically towards women, but that would have profound effects on women’s lives. Insistent that women’s interests not be slighted in the negotiating process, women across the nation quickly sprang into action.

What was novel was not only the new sense of possibility that women’s lobbying groups felt after eight years of Republican rule, but the involvement of women academics in direct public policy advocacy work. Primarily from the fields of history and economics, these scholars used the internet and the print media to help pressure Congress and the Obama administration to make gender and racial equity a priority.

The opening salvo came at the end of November from economist Randy Albelda in the Boston Globe, who lamented the “Macho Stimulus Plan.” Expressing concern that the kinds of “shovel ready” construction jobs and “green” jobs that Obama touted would overwhelmingly be held by men, Albelda characterized the lack of funding for jobs traditionally held by women as “a crucial missing link in this package.”

“Like the need to rebuild our physical infrastructure there is as big a need in developing and expanding our social infrastructure,” Albelda argued. A stimulus package that provided jobs in sectors that typically employed large numbers of women such as health care and education would not only help alleviate poverty, it would “boost the employment prospects of women at all levels of the wage scale.” One month later, lawyer and philosopher Linda Hirschman repeated Albelda’s message on the OpEd page of the New York Times. “There are almost no [jobs for] women on this road to recovery,” she warned.

Other scholars quickly joined the debate. NYU women’s historian Linda Gordon co-authored an “Open Letter to Barack Obama,” which urged the new President not to repeat the mistakes of FDR, whose New Deal job creation programs were overwhelmingly directed toward white men. Urging Obama to invest in jobs held primarily by women, the letter called for rebuilding “not only concrete and steel bridges but also human bridges, the social connections that create cohesive communities.” More than 1,000 American historians signed the Open Letter. A few weeks later, I joined historians Sonya Michel and Eileen Boris in spreading the word here in North Carolina and beyond. After The Greensboro News and Record published our OpEd,”Obama’s Stimulus Plan Must Include Jobs for Women, Too,” the piece was picked up by newspapers and websites across the country.

Meanwhile, notable feminist economists such as Barbara Bergmann, Nancy Folbre, and Susan Feiner circulated a petition calling for the government to guarantee that women and minorities would receive their fair share of the employment opportunities created by the stimulus package. And after working on parallel tracks, the historians and economists came together to form a group to coordinate their efforts:W.E.A.V.E., Women’s Equality Adds Value to the Economy.

It was an exciting time. For several weeks, feminist scholars and public policy advocates had filled cyberspace with blog posts and articles pressing for gender and racial equity in the stimulus package. When news broke that the Obama administration had stripped funding for contraception for low-income women from the package because conservatives were ridiculing the proposal, my Inbox was inundated with messages debating the implications of this new development. The National Organization for Women immediately created a website to help concerned citizens send emails and phone calls to congressmen. I joined many others in sending letters to the editor of our local newspapers, explaining how funding for birth control was an important tool of economic recovery. Obama did not change his mind about including birth control in the stimulus package, but feminists’ voices were taken into consideration: we learned that he would try to pass a similar provision for contraceptive funding in a different piece of legislation.

Now that the stimulus package has been approved, feminist scholars are both disappointed and heartened by the result of their efforts. Many economists believe that the stimulus package needed to be much larger and focus more on jobs than on tax cuts. Republicans cut funding allocated for many of the programs that target women and children such as Head Start, school improvement, and food stamps. Still the National Women’s Law Center describes it as a “strong plan” that “includes a number of measures that are especially important for women and their families,” particularly its provisions for child care, unemployment insurance, child support, health care, direct assistance for low-income households, education and job training, and job opportunities for women.

What the activity surrounding the stimulus package made clear was that women in both advocacy organizations and in academe feel energized and empowered by the election of President Obama. When National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy was asked if the Obama administration was friendlier to women’s groups than previous administrations, she laughed and replied, “Are you kidding? The difference is like night and day.”

We do not know how far Obama will go in the next four years in establishing legislation that protects women’s rights. Yet what is very clear from these first 100 days is that women across the country plan not only to watch from a distance but to roll up their sleeves and actively participate in the process.

Lisa Levenstein
University of North Carolina at Greensboro