NEWS

What It Meant To Have A Feminist President

On what we gained and what we are losing.

11/01/2017 11:21 PM IST | Updated 12/01/2017 1:11 AM IST
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President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on stage after the president delivered his farewell address in Chicago.

“For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation. It’s what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom. It’s what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande. It’s what pushed women to reach for the ballot.” 

I watched Barack Obama’s farewell speech from my apartment, getting a bit misty-eyed at hearing those words come from the President of the United States. I thought about the first time I had gathered around a laptop with friends to watch Obama speak ― in the winter of 2008 while I was living in Canada, to hear his famous “Yes We Can” speech. Obama has always had the ability to speak to millions and make each person feel as though he was speaking directly to them. In both these instances, I felt he was speaking to me. 

Since 2008, Obama has spoken countless times about women and gender equality. But in the last year, he has driven home the idea that men can ― and should ― be feminists, and that he counts himself among them. In a country where we have never had a woman president and where we still fall shamefully below parity when it comes to women’s representation in government and business, the idea that our first black president was also our first openly feminist president felt quite radical.  

“I may be a little grayer than I was eight years ago, but this is what a feminist looks like,” President Barack Obama told the audience at the United States of Women Summit at the White House in June.

In August, Obama wrote a beautiful essay for Glamour focused on his feminist identity and how that identity has informed his political worldview. He wrote about fatherhood and masculinity, street harassment and the sexual double standard, policies that penalize working mothers and attitudes that punish emotional young men.

He asserted in no uncertain terms: “It is absolutely men’s responsibility to fight sexism too.”

And those proclamations about the importance of gender equality were more than just words. Our feminist president also took action (or at least attempted to). 

WHITE HOUSE POOL (ISP POOL IMAGES) via Getty Images
President Barack Obama poses with a group of 6 years old Girls Scouts from Tulsa Oklahoma who designed a battery powered page turner to help people who are paralyzed or have arthritis at the 2015 White House Science Fair.

He signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law ― the first bill he signed during his first term ― and created a National Equal Pay Task Force.

He supported Vice President Joe Biden (another self-identified feminist, albeit with a mixed history when it comes to championing women) in the launch of It’s On Us, a program dedicated to fighting sexual violence on college campuses.

He upped the minimum wage for federal contractors in a nation where nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women.

He defended Planned Parenthood and made it clear that American women must have the right to make decisions about their own bodies and health care. 

He made sure that birth control was covered by insurance plans so that women like me had access to it, enabling us to make safer, better decisions, and protect our bodies and health and future. (Thanks to POTUS and the Affordable Care Act, I was able to get the rad IUD I’ll still have for another four years ― the first form of hormonal birth control I’ve used that doesn’t cause my already painful, chronic migraines to become debilitating.)

The weight of what we gained from Obama’s self-identification as a feminist becomes all the more clear in stark contrast to the incoming administration. 

We are going from a White House that prioritized fighting sexual assault, and specifically violence against women, to a president-elect who has been publicly accused of assaulting more than a dozen women and a nominee for attorney general that only just acknowledged that grabbing a woman by her genitals without her consent even constitutes assault

The gravity of being an American woman watching the most powerful man in the world preach the importance of gender equality ― and men’s responsibility in the fight for it ― cannot be ignored.

We are going from a president who talks lovingly about his daughters’ kindness, brilliance, thoughtfulness and passion, to one who has said he would date one of his daughters if they weren’t related, and who speculated about his other daughter’s future breast size when she was an infant. 

We are going from a president who openly acknowledges the disproportionate burden of unpaid labor his political career put on his brilliant and accomplished partner and wife, Michelle, to one who once told Howard Stern that Melania would make a great mother because she would “take great care of the child, without my having to do very much.”

We are going from a president who critically discusses how “easy [it is] to absorb all kinds of messages from society about masculinity and come to believe that there’s a right way and a wrong way to be a man,” to one who believes men are best defined by their hand size and dick size and conquests, both financial and sexual. 

We are going from a president who understands intersectionality on a personal level, who speaks about the specific challenges women and girls of color face, to one who equates blackness with “ghettos.”

We are going from a man who writes about how he wants America to be “a place where every single child can make of her life what she will,” to one who rates women on a scale of 1-10 based on how much he desires to sleep with them.  

Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images
President Barack Obama delivers remarks with his daughters Sasha (L) and Malia during the annual turkey pardoning ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House November 25, 2015.

Yet, as Ann Friedman pointed out in June, having a president who says he is a feminist ― and tries to deliver on feminist policies and promises ― is not everything and it does not guarantee lasting legislative change, especially if the rest of the government does not support those endeavors.

“For the kind of progress we want, we need politicians at every level who look like feminists,” wrote Friedman. “We need business leaders who look like feminists. And we need activists... to stay loud and insistent that change is still possible.”

This is all true, and has become painfully clear over the last year.

But in spite of all that, visibility matters; it matters a lot. The gravity of being an American woman watching the most powerful man in the world preach the importance of gender equality ― and men’s responsibility in the fight for it ― cannot be ignored. 

The beautiful thing about feminism is that it does not live and die by its leaders. We will no longer have a feminist president, but we will still have a whole lot of feminist citizens ― Barack Obama being one of them. And those citizens are ready for action, ready to hold dear to those rights we know to be inalienable.   

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