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Category: Feminism, Politics

Ready to Govern

| January 5, 2007

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Eleanor Smeal

As the future administration takes shape in Washington, D.C., women come to the table with impressive credentials and the backing of national women’s organizations.

Women’s groups are moving on many fronts to seek to affect policies and appointments in the upcoming Obama administration.

A Wiki-Project to put forth names of women for top jobs has been underway almost since the election, spearheaded by Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority as an outgrowth of an idea from the National Council of Women’s Organizations. “It’s now being done electronically,” says Smeal. “We have 20 to 30 [national women’s groups] participating.”

The groups collect resumes, put them on the private website for comment and, at some point, forward those that pass muster to the Obama transition team for specific jobs in the Plum Book, the directory of thousands of jobs throughout an administration. The project is expected to escalate in January.

Five of the 21 cabinet-level positions filled by year-end had gone to women. Key positions in the sub-cabinet rank were yet to be filled, including many that would affect policies on women’s health and safety.

It is clear already that women will be at the top of an Obama administration, in the inner circle. Valerie Jarrett, a longtime personal and political ally of President-elect BarackObama, will be at his elbow as a senior advisor, for instance.

It also is clear that, unlike earlier transitions, there is a significant “bench strength” of women—not only with good educations but with decades of experience in the top ranks of business, foundations, and government—ready and able to step into a top policy job. That strength is demonstrated by the array of women already chosen for top jobs, including Obama’s fiercest competitor Hillary Clinton as well as major Obama backers such as Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano.

Although Senate hearings may bring out unexpected histories of the women already chosen, it is unlikely that there will be major surprises that would derail the appointments, as happened to women with national reputations chosen by President Bill Clinton in the chaotic first months of his first term.

Governor Bill Richardson has just removed his name from consideration as Commerce secretary, but overall Obama has done a better job of vetting his choices. In terms of the women chosen, they tend to have come from public lives and have therefore already been tested by their years of service.

Women’s groups also are putting forward proposals for policies and programs that could fit into an economic stimulus package. In addition, there are proposals to create either a presidential commission on women or a cabinet-level office on women.

Coming off of eight years when programs helping women have been curbed sharply, or in some cases left to atrophy financially and politically at the federal level, women’s groups point to a great need for assessment. They want a focus on what must be done next to address not only the continued poverty of women but also their continued exclusion from economic opportunities despite decades of promises of equality.

A West Coast-based coalition called WomenCount is circulating a petition to create a presidential commission on women. It would follow the pattern of the 1961 commission appointed by President John F. Kennedy. His Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, lay the foundations for emerging women’s rights groups such as the National Organization for Women and the Women’s Equity Action League.

The Kennedy commission turned a spotlight on wage disparities that had grown to nearly 40 percent in some jobs and helped push through workplace changes that gave women more traction in pursing opportunities. It also triggered the gathering of extensive government research data on the status of women that was then disseminated by the Women’s Bureau and used extensively over the decades by women’s movement advocates.

Today, the WomenCount petition noted, “the role that women play in our economic structure has never been clearer. Women are the backbone of the nation’s workforce and control 70 percent of its buying power.”

At the same time, the 2008 campaigns exposed many problems, according to the petition. “The candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, while inspiring women and girls around the country to imagine what can be, exposed extreme gender bias in the media and throughout our culture.”

A presidential commission on women is needed to keep women “at the forefront of our political discourse.”

A separate effort is sponsored by 48 national women’s groups, most of them based on the East Coast, urging creation of a cabinet-level office on to assess and coordinate the many programs and policies that affect women. The office would have a staff and a director who would report directly to the president. Its mandate would be to:     

  • evaluate federal programs, initiatives and policies for their impact on women (both opportunities and inequities) and suggest ways to improve them;     
  • take leadership of a reconstituted White House Office for Women’s Initiative and Outreach as well as a restored Interagency Council on Women;     
  • advocate for women, including women of color, on policies ranging from health care to labor issues to the economy;      coordinate government-wide women’s initiatives and ensure that agency and departmental policies mesh with “national and international commitments to women”;     
  • expand and strengthen what had been a Clinton Administration office for women’s initiatives and outreach, both to solicit views of national women’s groups for the administration and to keep those groups posted in administration initiatives;     
  • communicate not just with state-level Status of Women Commissions but also with UN offices and commissions on women.

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