On Tax Day 2015, the world's most powerful man traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, to devote 80 minutes to listening to American women talk about their economic prospects, and, by extension, their loved ones. The event was billed as a "Working Mothers Town Hall," and the president was indeed surrounded by colorful children's books and plush stuffed animals. But Barack Obama called out tax cuts, equal pay for equal work, child care, college debt and maternity leave as "family issues," not issues just for women.
However, the president did have a challenge in the form of a question for women bloggers and social media influencers who attended, in person and online: How are we prepared to share stories about these issues and even take action in specific cities and communities?
After brief opening remarks on “middle-class economics” and tax cuts he said will reduce taxes for 44 million taxpayers, the president listened attentively to questions where women expressed some of the same frustration I observed in the answers to a survey SheKnows Media fielded in the days leading up to the town hall meeting.
In this online survey, 89 percent of women named the Paycheck Fairness Act as a top five legislative priority, even though fewer than half said they had experienced discrimination due to gender or race. At the town hall, women voiced concerns including child care costs, maternity leave, early childhood education, college costs, family-friendly flexibility, wage increases and tax cuts, to name a few.
After each woman spoke, President Obama shared personal anecdotes, policy recommendations, data and his own strong opinion that men and children benefit when working women play by the same rules as men:
"Before we were in the White House, I wanted to make sure Michelle got paid as much as she could. I want a big paycheck for Michelle. That wasn't a women's issue. If she had a bigger paycheck, that made us able to pay the bills. Why would I want my spouse or my daughter discriminated against? That doesn't make any sense." ~ President Obama, #ObamaTownHall, April 15 (you can watch the full video here).
For me as moderator, the president's skillful blend of warm, personal anecdotes with factual data to advocate for his policy recommendations went as I expected—he enjoys a natural grace with voters and with cameras; what could go differently?
Here's what I did not expect: The commander-in-chief invoked the role community participation played at a pivotal moment in U.S. history. Specifically, President Obama used the context of the historic march to Selma to segue to his own question: What opportunity do American women have right now to lead working- and middle-class families to change government and employer policies on “family issues”?
Here's the context — forgive me, this excerpt is long but worth it: American women across the board have to lead working- and middle-class families to a sea change on issues dismissed by some as women's only for years.
Lisa Stone: "…We've talked about government responsibility, we've talked about enterprise responsibility. What is the individual responsibility that we as Americans have to pursue these issues if they matter to us?"
THE PRESIDENT: "Well, I've always said the most important office in a democracy is the office of citizen. And I was recently in Selma celebrating the 50th anniversary of the march there. The world was transformed because maids and Pullman porters and young priests and rabbis just decided to march and to highlight issues. And so community participation is critical."
And I'm going to play the role of an interviewer here for a second. Lisa, you tell me, when you — you've got this huge network that you guys have been able to set up. And that's part of the power of the internet, is being able to make sure that people don't feel alone on these issues. They suddenly say, oh, what I'm reading here, that's what I'm going through."
"Now, the key is, once you connect like that, with millions of people, how does that then translate into action in specific cities or specific communities? And I don't know the degree to which people have the opportunity through your site not only to share stories but also to potentially act on them?"
The president's question is not just for me. This last question is, rather, a challenge for you and me and all of us — for our community to answer, individually and together. Of course, American women certainly don't all vote alike. But on topics like taxes and family benefits, health care and wages, we increasingly find women can agree on two things regardless of political party:
* We want to be able to get ahead to take care of our loved ones, and
* We want better solutions from our government and from our employers to help us do that.
Take, for example, the recent statement by Carly Fiorina, a Republican business leader currently considering entering the 2016 presidential race:
"We all agree that equal pay for equal work is absolutely required — not only because it is fair, but because our economy depends upon it. Women are not simply 50 percent of our population or our workforce — they are 50 percent of our potential." ~ Carly Fiorina
Ms. Fiorina's solutions are different from the president's, but she, too, sees the need for change. Our community is capable of helping lead change: We've built a massive for-profit publishing business on the proven fact that women inspire women, and sharing our stories does make a difference.
The sense of frustration and clear declaration of unfairness voiced by many women at the town hall meeting and in our online surveys indicates that the next session of Congress and the 2016 election is happening at an auspicious time. For so long, women have been asking to put these issues front and center. Is it now time to stop asking and start demanding?
So, one day after the President turned the question of action to me, I'm turning it to YOU to answer this question:
"When you have followed all the rules, gotten an education, started from the bottom and worked your way up, but still you get treated unfairly where do you go from there?" ~ Sarah Douglas, SheKnows Media survey respondent
I look forward to your thoughts.
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