I used to teach a women's studies class to middle schoolers at a progressive school. We had an ongoing project called Powerful, Positive Women, in which the girls researched and presented a woman each day to the rest of the class. Sometimes these were well-known women such as Hillary Clinton, and sometimes they were neighbors or aunts or grandmothers who had impressed the girls for one reason or another. That was the beauty of the project -- it taught the girls that all women are powerful and have the potential to make positive change in the world.
On Friday, I attended part of the 18th Annual National Issues Conference held by the Democratic National Committee's Women's Leadership Forum. I was there to cover the president's remarks at the end of the day, but arrived early to hear some of the speakers. It was the best example of the personal becoming political, with each speaker drawing from her life in order to explain why this upcoming election matters.
The focus was women's issues, and the speakers (aside from the president) were primarily women. I found myself wishing my daughter were there -- not that she would have understood the issues at seven years old, but I wanted her to have felt the energy of the space. The room was filled with emotion, because politics touch on emotional issues: our ability to take care of ourselves and our communities. The world we wish to leave for future generations. It was impossible to hear all of those powerful, positive women speak and not be moved to tears as Lilly Ledbetter discussed the role her personal work experience played in moving towards equal pay for all women. Or when Debbie Wasserman Schultz vowed that when it comes to women, no one will out work us.
With sponsorship from the Democratic National Committee as well as the group Women for Obama, there was an obvious partisan lens through which the viewpoint was filtered, but in my opinion that doesn't negate the strides the Obama Administration has made on behalf of women. TheAffordable Care Act has brought health care services to 45 million women. He signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, ensuring that women receive equal pay for equal work. President Obama has forced employers to create space and time in the workplace for expressing breast milk for breastfeeding mothers. And he didn't just recognize women as part of a campaign slogan -- he appointed eight women to cabinet-rank positions, appointed a woman to be third in command of the country, and nominated two women to the Supreme Court (a branch of government that has only had four women total in its 220-year history).
All of that was on my mind as Senator Barbara Mikulski took to the stage to introduce the president.
It is fitting that Senator Mikulski preceded the president -- she's not only the longest-serving female member of Congress, but she's also the first woman elected to the Senate (others served before her, but they succeeded a male family member such as a husband). In her first of many rallying cries, she told the crowd,
I didn't want to be the first... I wanted to be the first of many.
She explained that women who want to run for office need a "MOM": money, organization, and message. And she empowered the women in the audience to get involved, using the story of the Lilly Ledbetter vote to rile up the crowd. Back then, when it looked as though the bill wouldn't pass, she told her supporters,
This is an Abigail Adams moment. We're going to start our own revolution. And I said, "Women of America, suit up! Square your shoulders! Put your lipstick on! The fight has begun!"
When President Obama took to the stage, he spoke about what still needs to be done. His only reference to his past accomplishments was to underscore his commitment to women in America.
And as long as I’m president, we are going to keep moving forward. You can count on that. You don’t have to take my word on it -- you’ve got my signature on it. Because something like standing up for the principle of equal pay for equal work isn’t something I’m going to have to “get back to you on” -- it’s the first law I signed.
President Obama said that, though we are sometimes discussed as such, women are not an interest group.
Women are not an interest group. Women shouldn't be treated that way. Women are half this country and half of its workforce. You're 80% of my household if you count my mother-in-law... and I always count my mother-in-law.
And in saying this, the president pointed out that there are no such things as "women's issues," because what affects women affects everyone. If we don't earn enough money, we're not spending it in stores, so equal pay is an economic issue, especially for businesses. If we have discrepancies in health care coverage, it affects the people who depend on us, becoming a family issue.
His understanding of the challenges women face comes directly from living with his wife, the First Lady, as they tried to balance raising their daughters with two careers.
Once Michelle and I had our girls, we gave it our all to balance raising a family and chasing a dream. And it was tough on me, but let's face it, it was tougher on her. I was gone a lot. I know that when she was with the girls, she would feel guilty that she was giving enough time to work. When she was at work, she'd feel guilty about not having enough time for the girls.
After the speech, I rode down the Convention Center escalator with some of the several hundred women who attended the conference. One realized that nothing has changed from who Obama was in 2008 to who he is today. "He hasn't changed one bit. He still has that lovely energy," she told me.
But my takeaway from the conference was that women's issues are important because they affect the very fabric of our society. America will come apart if we ignore the needs of over 50% of the population. Every single woman has the ability to make a difference. Every one of us has a vote, and we need to use it to support the candidate that best represents our vision for America. And more than that, we are all powerful, positive women, and we all have a unique voice to add to the whole.
In the words of Senator Mikulski,
How will you get involved in this upcoming election?
Photo Credit: Melissa Ford.
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