White House Council on Women and Girls: Women and Girls Must Keep Speaking Up

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.


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  • http://www.endendoat.blogspot.com Jeanne


    Wow is right! This is fantastic!


  • http://feministadvisoryboard.blogspot.com MadamaAmbi

    Gloria–I am both thrilled and also more energized than ever because I have something to ask for from the Obama administration and I think they’ll understand why I’m asking for it.

    I agree with your assessment that this is not the time to sit back, relax, and assume that women’s and girls’ needs will now be taken care of by the Council. One thing I know from having worked in the field with pregnant teenagers and also with NGO’s providing services internationally, as well as in my own organizing in San Francisco, is that you cannot, let me say this again, YOU CANNOT MEET THE NEEDS OF THE NEEDY IF YOU DON’T ASK THEM WHAT THEY NEED!!!

    Barack Obama got elected because he and his team ran a bottom-up campaign, and this needs to be carried through by the Council. We need the administration to help US (all activists who are on the women’s team) develop a communications infrastructure so that the neediest and the least visible among women and girls can speak directly to policymakers.

    This would be a matter of ensuring that public places like schools, libraries, group homes, shelters, etc., have good computer access and that low-income women and girls can reliably get online and get heard directly. Yes, I mean directly. In fact, what I envision is an entire online/media network devoted to the education, health and welfare of women, unencumbered by the need to entertain or to bring in advertising revenues. I see such a network delivering comprehensive sex-education, classes in communication skills, job skills, etc., via online classes. I also see open online chats via webcam and/or phone that allow any woman or girl to speak directly to the network about her needs.

    I’ve been trying to set this up on my own, and in a year or so I will have a tiny piece of this infrastructure set up, but I don’t have the money or the staff to fill in so many pieces of this very important infrastructure. INFRASTRUCTURE!!! Sure, we need to repair bridges and buildings and all that, but we need communication infrastructures that bridge the digital divide in very immediate, real ways. We’ve GOT to get these women and girls online and in the conversation. We’ve got to see their faces and hear their voices. They are the women and girls who know what they need.

    Just as 50 women’s organizations drafted a proposal for the Council, I’m asking if women can come together to draft a proposal for such a communications structure, and present this to Valerie Jarrett and Tina Tchen in a unifed, public way which is inclusive of the vastness of the blogosphere. IOW, we need to get the name-recognition women’s groups to endorse this, but we also MUST get women of color, radical women of color, the disability community, the transgender community, the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community, as well as the progressive community, into this development process. We are all tied to one freedom: human rights, civil rights. We are all comrades in this process.

    I’m asking right here, right now, if my request for an Obama administration funded communications infrastructure is a good idea, if it’s a necessary tool for the next phase of women’s movement. If you think so, please pass on this post. Leave your comments here, or contact me on Facebook or Twitter or leave me a comment on the Feminist Advisory Board for Obama blog.

    in sisterhood

  • Gloria Pan

    Madama, thanks for your thoughtful and passionate response. Re women of color, it occurred me me late last night what having Jarrett and Tchen leading the new Council will mean for the race and feminism conversation. In the Fem2.0 survey feedback (survey’s open through tomorrow, BTW), there was a comment that the conference program was obviously AGAIN something from white, middle class women, which I thought was so funny. The four key organizers made the welcome remarks, so there we were, an African American, a Chinese American, a Latina American, and okay, one white American, standing up there, which one would think would make a strong visual impression about the racial dynamics behind the conference. Guess some people can’t see things even when it’s right in front of their face.

    You make a very good point about the Obama campaign’s success coming from bottom-up power, which is, I believe, what the Fem2.0 community represents.

    As for your idea about the communications infrastructure, I think it’s a good one, but I’m not convinced that a compelling argument can be made that women should be singled out. Why should investment be made to bridge the digital divide just for women and not for all Americans? Why should the Obama administration made the extra effort to bring poor women into the dialog, and not just the poor? There are of course many reasons why, and in reality, such a structure could be used by all — we certainly would not want to exclude anyone who wanted to use it — but for the President of both male and female Americans, the argument to convince seems too one-sided.

  • Marc Chimes

    If someone finds a way to get a weekly email or RSS feed from the Council I’d be interested in subscribing. Any ideas?

  • http://feministadvisoryboard.blogspot.com MadamaAmbi

    Gloria–you’re right, no one should be excluded. I guess I always focus on women and girls because I know that population best…

    as for the racial divide…it’s a longstanding feeling of exclusion that WOC are talking to me about…they are very sensitized to tokenism vs. acknowledgement of their leadership…my position is that I’m not getting defensive. I’m listening. I’m interested in supporting WOC leadership and other marginalized groups however I can, not because it’s PC but because the women I’m speaking to have so much to say and to offer…

    I understand how you would feel misunderstood after having organized a conference with a multicultural group of conveners/planners, and still be criticized, and I think that we just have to keep listening, even when we feel we’re being accused wrongly…or misunderstood…just stay open to hearing, listening, understanding, creating more and more spaces for raw dialogue, dialogue without defensiveness…very big wounds don’t get healed in a day or in one conference…healing this divide will take years of concerted collaboration and community…imo…

  • Gloria Pan

    Marc, if the Council is serious (and I don’t believe for one minute that all the Cabinet members are embracing this — I’m sure some hope it’ll just go away), they should have a communications plan read or in the works, of which regular updates would be a basic component. HHmmmm….. Let me see if I can find out more from (or make that suggestion through) some of the larger women’s advocacy orgs.

  • http://punditmom1.blogspot.com PunditMom

    Merely an opportunity to step it up a bit? I would be more heartened if this was more than a council — will it be too easy for the Obama administration to forget and move on?

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  • http://www.loriortiz.com Lori Ortiz

    I’m resentful about the health care issue. Bush wanted to ensure that all children are covered but not their mothers. It pains me to see American women, with and without children, who cannot afford medical care for themselves.