WMC News & Features

An Obama Report Card: State of the Union for Women and Children

In the wake of President Obama's State of the Union Address, the WMC looks at his record on a series of essential issues. Overall grade? Pass, but with ample room for improvement.

After the grade inflation of eight years of President George W. Bush—when a D minus administration claimed to be A plus—we've tried to return to realistic grading here. We've taken into consideration the degree of difficulty, willingness to study and make an effort, and the increase in school-yard bullying in these last two years. In that spirit, the Women’s Media Center has asked experts across various policy areas to reflect on gains made, battles lost, and what women expect from Barack Obama's administration during the next two years.

International Women’s Rights

Perhaps the single strongest show of support for international women’s rights from this president came when he nominated Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton—who, as First Lady, made famous the phrase “women’s rights are human rights”—to serve as his secretary of state. According to the Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Ellen Chesler, Secretary Clinton has indeed “placed the status of women at the heart of her national security and development concerns.” Chesler points to the establishment of the Office of Global Women’s Issues within the State Department and the president’s appointment of Melanne Verveer as the first ever ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues as the most visible and immediate expressions of that commitment.

The Office of Global Women’s Issues has supported women affected by America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The State Department has directed $5 million to support the training of Iraqi widows and female heads of households in the areas of literacy and entrepreneurship and created the US-Afghan Women’s Council to complete a variety of projects from building schools for girls to leadership training programs for senior women in the Afghan civil service.

The Office of Global Women’s Issues has also spurred private funding for the Secretary’s International Fund for Women and Girls, which supports non-profits and NGOs doing direct, on-the-ground work with and for women around the world.

Clinton has also implemented important procedural changes within the State Department, like directing diplomats in each country to include specific information about the impact of policies and conditions on women and girls. When Clinton travels, she makes time in the schedule to meet with local women leaders, answer questions at girl’s schools, and do interviews with women-run media.

In May 2009, President Obama announced the Global Health Initiative: a $63 billion, six-year commitment to combat AIDS and tropical diseases such as malaria, and to help improve maternal health in the world's poorest countries. The president’s 2011 budget allots for an increase in the Global Health Initiative, specifically to programs that decrease maternal mortality.

The International Violence Against Women Act, which would prepare and require the United States to respond to outbreaks of gender-based violence in armed conflict, failed to leave committee in the U.S. Congress. Activists will be looking to the administration to more strenuously support this legislation in the 112th Congress. Women’s advocates will also be building on the momentum around a Congressional hearing, the first in over a decade, on the ratification of CEDAW, the landmark international agreement affirming the human rights and equality of women and girls around the world.

Grade: A minus

Women in the Workforce

In March 2009, when creating the White House Council on Women and Girls, President Obama laid out his understanding of the barriers to equality:

When jobs do not offer family leave, that affects men who wish to help care for their families. When women earn less than men for the same work, that affects families who have to work harder to make ends meet. When our daughters do not have the same educational and career opportunities as our sons, that affects entire communities, our economy, and our future as a nation.

President Obama began his presidency with a strong show of support for pay equality by designating the Lilly Ledbetter Act the first bill he signed into law. But several measures stalled in Congress. The Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act, which would provide federal workers with up to four weeks of paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, passed the House with bipartisan support in 2009 but failed to get a vote in the Senate. Critics claim that tepid administration support for the legislation hurt its chances. The Obama White House was more enthusiastic in support of The Healthy Families Act, which would have provided seven prorated sick days for workers had it not also died in the Congress. Currently stalled is the administration-backed State Paid Leave Fund, which would provide incentives for states to start paid leave programs and is housed within the President's 2011 budget.

While the Ledbetter Act restored individual employee protections for the right to sue over pay disparity, true “fair pay” legislation, appropriately named the Paycheck Fairness Act and supported by the Obama administration, was defeated by a Senate procedural vote during the 2010 “lame duck” session after passing in the House. Lisa Maatz, the American Association of University Women’s (AAUW) director of Public Policy and Government Relations, applauds the establishment of the National Equal Pay Enforcement Taskforce early last year and the administration's ability to be “creative with what they can do in the executive branch.” Yet, she doesn’t give President Obama a pass on failed legislation. “The White House is the bully pulpit. If they wanted to put all of their leverage behind something like the Paycheck Fairness Act, they could get it through. We’ll be looking for them to use some of that leverage for these issues over the next two years.”

An AAUW report released this week on the administration’s progress also lauded the “reinvigoration of the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau as well as the Office of Federal Contracts Compliance, and their clear emphasis on closing the pay gap.” In October 2009, the White House announced implementation of the Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contract Program, which requires government agencies to give 5% of federal contracts to women-owned small businesses.

Grade: A for comprehension; B minus for implementation

Appointing Women

According to the Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP), President Obama has appointed women to fill 7 of 22 existing cabinet or sub-cabinet level positions, approximately 32% of available positions; 3 of the 7 are women of color. At the maximum level, women held 42% of these positions under Bill Clinton and 24% under George W. Bush.

Broadening the scope to women in “high level” positions, Obama has appointed or nominated 19 women to fill senior roles in his administration; 8 of these positions went to women of color, including Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Economic Equality and the only open lesbian to hold a senior level position within the administration.

According to Katherine Kleeman of the CAWP, the “argument that there aren’t enough women to fill more senior level positions is long gone.” All three administrations, says Kleeman, have tended to appoint people the president and close advisors know and trust with the personal and professional experiences traditionally valued. She suggests presidents and their staff should “attribute a higher value to parenting experience and volunteer work and be more open to a talent pool outside the Ivy League institutions and Fortune 500 companies.”

As president, Obama is the de facto head of the Democratic Party and therefore at least in part responsible for setting a pro-equality tone for candidate recruitment. During the 2010 midterms, 4 Democratic women ran either as challengers or for open Senate seats; all 4 lost. On the House side, 27 women won the party’s nomination to run as challengers or for open seats; 4 of them, all women of color, won. No Democratic women were newly elected governor in 2010. By contrast, three GOP women became the first women governors in their states: Nikki Haley in South Carolina, Mary Fallin in Oklahoma, and Susanna Martinez in New Mexico. Kleegan cautions that the dismal numbers on the Democratic side must be understood within a larger losing narrative for the Democrats during the midterms. But, she notes, “the Democrats aren’t putting as much effort as the Republicans into grooming great women candidates at the local level. This, and the party penchant for financially supporting favorite sons rather than daughters in primary races, is going to have to change for more Democratic women to be elected.”

Grade: C


The Affordable Care Act of 2010 will benefit an estimated 30 million women, a disproportionate number of them women of color and their families, who are more likely to live in poverty and be uninsured or underinsured (Pollack, Wendy. “Woman View.” Shriver Center. Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, 08 016 2010. Web. 26 Jan 2011). Fifteen million women who are now uninsured will be eligible for subsidized insurance coverage and another 14.5 million insured women will benefit from improved coverage or reduced premiums. Also benefitting low-income women is the expansion of Medicaid benefits to 133% of the poverty level—a step that is set to loop in 8.2 million mostly uninsured women.

Judy Waxman of the National Women’s Law Center declares the passage of the law “an A+++. A miracle. Not everything we would design it to be, but it was a major step forward.”

The health reform act eliminated gender rating, the practice of denying or charging more for coverage on the basis of gender. It guarantees coverage for preexisting conditions, including those like breast or cervical cancer, C-sections, or being treated for domestic or sexual violence, which were often disqualifying conditions for women. In addition, young women—the age group most likely to be uninsured—will be allowed to remain on their parent’s health care plan until age 26.

Women also gained access to a wider range of covered maternity and newborn care services. Medicaid will be required to cover freestanding birth centers and women under new plans will be guaranteed access to their gynecologists and obstetricians without a referral. In addition, the law requires employers to provide nursing mothers breaks and private places to nurse in their place of employment.

Yet, undocumented and immigrant women were completely shut out of the benefits of healthcare reform. Under the Affordable Care Act, undocumented women and women who have been legal permanent residents for less than five years are barred from accessing health coverage through Medicaid. This restriction disproportionately impacts Latina women, 38% of whom are uninsured.

Grade: A minus

Reproductive Rights

On his third day in office, President Obama signed an executive order to repeal the Global Gag Rule, lifting the ban on federal funds to foreign family planning organizations that either offer abortions or provide information or counseling about abortion. It was a promising start for a self-declared pro-choice president who, when asked about his support for reproductive rights on the campaign trail, replied, “I trust women. Period.”

The president’s 2009 Omnibus Appropriation Bill contained a $317 million increase for federal family planning programs, which are low-income women’s primary path to accessing reproductive health care—and health care of any kind in some instances. The bill also reinstated affordable birth control subsidies to college health centers. In 2010, the President decreased funding for failed abstinence-only programs, replacing two separate funding streams for abstinence only-programs with the first ever federal funding for comprehensive, evidence-based sex education. Also in 2010, the administration lifted a 2002 ban barring military women serving overseas from accessing emergency contraception.

While the Affordable Care Act (see above) included some important wins for women, the compromises that restrict abortion access and coverage made to secure passage represent the administration’s biggest betrayal of women’s reproductive rights. While the super-restrictive Stupak–Pitts amendment was defeated, the compromise still places an undue barrier on women seeking abortion and threatens to discourage insurance companies from covering the procedure. Under the new law, insurance companies offering abortion coverage must require enrollees to submit a second separate premium payment for the part of the policy covering abortion care.

The president also acquiesced to anti-choice leaders' demands that he issue an executive order that reaffirms the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds from being spent on abortion. While some argue the order was simply symbolic as Congress keeps renewing Hyde every year—something the Obama administration has been near silent on—others say this gesture invites the introduction of even more virulently anti-choice legislation now that conservatives hold the majority in the House. A final fall-out from the compromises made over health care reform: abstinence-only funding found it’s way back into the budget via yet another unnecessary compromise with Republicans to secure passage of health care reform.

Much of the pro-choice focus over the next two years will be mitigating the impact of Affordable Care Act compromises and assuring protection for women’s reproductive health as the regulations for the bill are finalized. One such regulation charges the Department of Health and Human Services to identify preventative health care services that must be available to women with no cost sharing, and advocates are pressing for inclusion of all FDA-approved contraception.

Grade: B minus

Violence Against Women

Vice-President Joe Biden has called authoring and passing the Violence Against Women Act the “proudest moment” of his Senate career. In June 2009, he announced the creation of the new post of White House Advisor on Violence Against Women and tapped respected activist and former executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence Lynn Rosenthal to fill the role.

“Given serious political and funding constraints, the White House has done quite well in affirming its commitment to ending violence against women,” says Erin Matson, National NOW action vice president. “Early on, the White House supported increases in funding for violence against women programs and worked effectively with Congress to get those approved.”

Advocates point to the reauthorization of the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, the only federal funding stream that goes directly to domestic violence shelters and programs. They also laud the administration’s focus on ending less recognized forms of violence, including designating this month as the first ever National Stalking Awareness Month: 3.4 million Americans are stalked every year and women ages 18 to 25 are the most likely to be stalked.

This week, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the formation of the Violence Against Women Tribal Prosecution Task Force in Indian Country, charged with creating a trial practice manual on the federal prosecution of violence against women offenses—we’ll watch how this progresses. In addition, Vice President Biden’s crowning legislation, the Violence Against Women Act, is up for reauthorization this year.

Grade: A

Gay Rights

The most publicized victory for gay rights under the Obama administration has undoubtedly been the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, which prohibited openly gay, lesbian and bisexual people from serving in the military. Less publicized is the specific impact the repeal of this policy has on female service members. While women make up 15% of armed forces, they made up more than 1/3 of all discharges from the military under DADT. Yet since current Equal Opportunity policies do not protect service members, these women have no official recourse for harassment or discrimination.

According to freelance journalist Nancy Goldstein, the Affordable Health Care Act is a big win for gay people, who are twice as likely as heterosexuals to be uninsured in the first place. Goldstein concludes “perhaps most helpfully for many lower-income LGBT adults, healthcare reform requires that all states allow childless adults with incomes up to 133 percent of the Federal Poverty Level ($14,403 a year) to apply for Medicaid coverage.”

President Obama has also employed executive powers to extend health coverage for gay and lesbians, ordering all executive branch agencies to provide benefits to employees’ same sex partners equal to those provided heterosexual families. And in a move that will have a significant impact on both gay and straight Americans, the White House recently directed the more than 6,000 hospitals that receive federal funding to allow all patients to put anyone they choose on their visitor list.

Still, the Justice Department fights to defend the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which serves to deny same-sex couples the 1,138 benefits and protections afforded to heterosexual married couples, when it comes under court challenge.

Grade: B Plus


President Obama led the policy portion of Tuesday’s State of the Union with an ode to creating jobs through the establishment of a green energy economy. Rebecca Lefton, of the Center for American Progress, pins this push as “one of the most promising” environmentally focused policies for women.

According to Lefton, the Department of Labor’s website on Green Jobs for Women, as well as participation in an international Clean Energy Education and Empowerment Initiative to encourage women to join clean energy disciplines, are signs the administration is serious about centering women in energy job creation.

Yet the proof has yet to be found in the pudding. Out of $500 million in American Recovery and Reinstatement Act funding for the Green Jobs Act, the Department granted only $5 million to train women for non-traditional jobs.

Grade: Incomplete

Immigrant Rights

In one of the most heartening moments for immigrants and residents without documents during Tuesday’s State of the Union, President Obama pushed the passage of the DREAM Act, which would allow students who’ve been in the country illegally to gain permanent residency if they complete two years in the military or two of four years at a four-year college. The legislation narrowly failed during the lame duck session, but according to Center for American Progress Immigration expert Angela Kelley, “there’s no way anyone can blame the White House for that failure. They had a squadron of cabinet secretaries out pleading for DREAM.”

One of the biggest policy wins for legal immigrant mothers and their children came during President Obama’s first year in office, when he signed the Child Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act, part of which extended legal immigrant pregnant women’s access to Medicaid. Another win for immigrant women early in the Obama presidency was the CDC’s removal of the mandatory requirement for immigrant women and girls to receive the HPV vaccine.

While some consider the Obama administration’s approach to illegal immigration enforcement more robust than the previous administration, they also welcome, as a symbol of a commitment to be more humane about enforcement, the cessation of large-scale raids that took undocumented workers immediately to deportation proceedings, without notifying their families.

Grade: Incomplete

Overall grade: Pass, but with ample room for improvement

More articles by Category: Economy, Environment, Feminism, Health, Immigration, LGBTQIA, Politics, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Reproductive rights



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