After the 2008 Elections, more than 50 women’s groups sent a letter to the administration asking President Obama to resurrect the White House Office on Women created by the Clinton Administration. Today, the leaders of those women’s groups met at the White House to witness President Obama’s signing of an executive order creating the White House Council on Women and Girls. While the new Council does not have Cabinet rank, nor does it even have a permanent office with full-time staff to work on women’s issues, it appears to be much more than what was asked for last December and more than what anyone thought women could expect from even this most sympathetic of Presidents. With the stroke of a pen, Barack Obama transported women from the dark backstage of the policy-making world to center stage. While euphoric, we are rather stunned to find ourselves suddenly in the footlights, no longer just an afterthought for our government.
While societal attitudes have certainly come a long way in the last 50 years and there are more opportunities than ever for women, gender parity has remained elusive. That’s because we’re still inhabiting a social infrastructure — the thinking and culture and standards of practice that dictate how things are done, especially in venerable old institutions like the government — bequeathed to us by the Founding Fathers. Since then, the infrastructure has grown into sprawl and strengthened into sclerosis, its heft allowing only so much adjustment to make room for women, the Feminist Revolution notwithstanding.
Consider American diplomacy. It has a distinctly masculine way of looking at the world, reinforced by the way the State Department, the military and other government services do research, produce reports, hold regular meetings, approach issues, etc., because that’s the way those things have always been done. Without the will to review and revise the way those things "have always been done," there could only be slow and painful evolution, not real change to enfranchise women, no matter how many of us joined those ranks.
According to the White House press release, the Council will "provide a coordinated federal response to the challenges confronted by women and girls and to ensure that all Cabinet and Cabinet-level agencies consider how their policies and programs impact women and families." Initial Council members will comprise the entire Cabinet, including the Secretaries of State, Treasury, Defense and Homeland Security, as well as the US Ambassador to the United Nations, the United States Trade Representative and the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors. Wow.
The Council will be chaired by White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, with White House Office of Public Liaison Director Tina Tchen serving as executive director. Jarrett, of course, is the official Old Friend in the White House, which means she’s got Obama’s ear. Before practicing law in Chicago, Tchen was state vice president of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for Women and was one of the leaders in writing and lobbying successfully for the Illinois Criminal Sexual Assault Act. Tchen was apparently so effective a NOW officer that then-President Ellie Smeal begged her to put off law school. "She’s really one of our own," the political director of a major women’s advocacy organization told me.
The Council’s first order of business will be to ask each agency to analyze their current status and ensure that they are focused internally and externally on women. With such a direct, public, and point-blank approach, and the agencies answerable to two no-nonsense women exercising their power straight from the inner circles of the administration, there should be little wiggle room for foot-dragging or obfuscation, though we should expect the usual raft of excuses when we start seeing some results.
During its first year, again from the press release, the Council will also focus on the following areas:
Improving women’s economic security by ensuring that each of the agencies is working to directly improve the economic status of women.
Working with each agency to ensure that the administration evaluates and develops policies that establish a balance between work and family.
Working hand-in-hand with the Vice President, the Justice Department’s Office of Violence Against Women and other government officials to find new ways to prevent violence against women, at home and abroad.
Finally, the critical work of the Council will be to help build healthy families and improve women’s health care.
Again, wow. It’s like a fairy godmother found the feminists’ Christmas list and decided to grant all the big-ticket items.
We did not have the tools to begin dismantling an obsolete government infrastructure, erected by men to serve the ways of men. By establishing the White House Council for Women and Girls, it seems that President Obama has given us those tools. But the Council’s existence does not mean that women can finally relax; we know too well that only we can be our own best advocates. The President has exerted his will from above, and it’s up to women to continue to express our will from below, from the grassroots; there’s lots of ground to cover before the two sides can meet. And since the Internet has freed women’s voices from every cranny of society, we have no excuse to be absent as the Council carries out its work. More than ever, we must use our blogs, discussion lists, Facebook pages Twitter, and every other digital avenue to speak up, comment, challenge, suggest and scold. It’ll be our only guarantee that those tools from the President won’t get rusty with disuse.