Dear President Obama:
One of your Cabinet Secretaries, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is striking a chord with women abroad and at home as she mixes in, with her discussion of global warming and economic security, the issue of women's empowerment, as a matter of democracy and social justice. Might you consider taking a lesson from the Secretary of State? If you did, you would incorporate her message about the importance of women to democratic politics and economic security into every aspect of your own programs and many of your public statements.
Those of us interested in the emancipation of American women would be delighted to hear you echo Secretary Clinton when she states, "I think that it’s imperative that nations like ours stand up for the rights of women. It is not ancillary to our progress; it is central" or "We have to highlight the importance of inclusion for women. We have to make clear that no democracy can exist without women’s full participation; no economy can be truly a free market without women involved." (Secretary Clinton, February 20, 2009).
You, Mr. President, are in a flurry of summits, initiatives, and speeches, leading up to the announcement of your budget this Thursday, February 26, 2009. Those who wonder whether you understand the significance of women in the U.S. economy need to hear you speak at home in terms your Secretary of State speaks abroad. We need to hear this partly because many of us doubt whether you are as forward thinking about women's issues as we would expect a Democratic president who will be seeking our votes again ought to be but also because we doubt you are as forward thinking about economic matters as we expect a Democratic president to be. Women do not dominate the boardrooms and executive suites of Fortune 500 companies; they do depend heavily on Social Security; they are a major source of small business initiatives in this country. When you discuss "entitlements" or "business" this means something different to the majority of women than it does to the majority of men.
Even in symbolic ways, we need you to do better if you want us to trust your commitment to women's empowerment. Just recently you cooperated with Men's Journal, a men's lifestyle magazine, that along with so many other publications, decided to devote a cover story to you. This is the cover:
For those who cannot read the headline, running alongside a photo of you holding a football in your hands, it says: "Barack Obama, Jock in Chief: His Moves, His Trash Talk & His Weekly Power Basketball Game."
Mr. President, I am not sure whether you are proud of being depicted as a trash-talking jock-in-chief - that seems to me to fulfill both sexist and racist stereotypes you yourself might find personally offensive. But the magazine editors certainly mean this headline to be laudatory, although they would never write the same sort of headline about a woman president or cabinet secretary and mean it to have the connotations of hipness and coolness they meant this one to carry. ("Trash-talking" is not a phrase used to praise powerfully positioned women.)
You, Mr. President, could by word and deed use your bully pulpit to discourage this sort of sexist pigeonholing not only of yourself but therefore of what power is supposed to look like or be like. I have written before about the need for you to convene a Presidential Empowerment of Women Advisory Board, to be as significant and influential with you as you suggest your PERAB and PIAB (Economic Recovery and Intelligence boards, respectively). This is becoming more urgent, not less. If you want the American economy and American democracy to remain strong, you must empower the 51 percent of the population who are women to participate as fully and on fair terms in our society.
Heidi Li Feldman, founder and president, 51 Percent