It’s clear we have a theme. Building off of calls of equality and citizenship from his Inaugural address, President Obama’s State of the Union laid out a vision of reforming government that at times sounded downright progressive. And it is a vision with plenty for feminists to get excited about. Here are my top 5 feminist highlights from the State of the Union.
1. Universal Pre-K
The idea of universally available and affordable preschool should not be a radical policy proposal, but it is, and it’s one that if implemented could have a positive and widespread economic impact. Most estimates place childcare costs at $10,000 per year for full-time care, and I know my family paid closer to $15,000. Per year. That’s an expense that is simply out of reach for many in this country. Yet the research into the benefits of engaging children in high quality early education is undeniable, and from a policy perspective makes for what should be an easy pass. Low-income children who participate in high quality early ed programs are 40% less likely to be held back a grade or need special education, are 30% more likely to graduate from high school and twice as likely to go to college. Investing in early education has a 10-15% rate of return. It is sound social policy, sound economic policy and if implemented would be a massive victory for feminists in education and public health reform.
2. Paycheck Fairness Act
It’s fitting that President Obama name-checked the Paycheck Fairness Act in the first State of the Union of his second term. It is the logical and necessary extension of the first piece of legislation he signed, the Lilly Ledbetter Act. But it still felt good for him to call on Congress to make gender pay discrimination a thing of the past. And like Universal Pre-K, it’s not just the right thing to do, it is the right economic thing to do. The gender pay gap is a drag on the earning and spending capabilities of all families where the mother is in the workforce. We’re long past due for a true meritocracy in our workplaces.
3. Increase In The Minimum Wage
Hand-in-hand with the Paycheck Fairness Act is the need for a big boost in the federal minimum wage. Currently set at $7.25/hour for non-exempt employees, President Obama called for a hike to $9.00/hour. But that’s not it. He also suggested tying that wage to cost of living index, which starts to sound like a “living wage.” Again, a bold, progressive idea simply by virtue of the desolate and regressive political climate brought by decades of cowering to the conservative fringe.
4. Eradicating Global Poverty By Empowering Girls
In another inspirational moment President Obama called for us to seize the possibility of an AIDS-free generation. And he called on Congress to help facilitate an end to global poverty by “empowering women and girls.” Beautiful rhetoric, but a tragic missed opportunity to call for an end to the global gag rule, condom prohibitions and other christian-proseltyzing disguised as delivering health care. The President is right that with a renewed commitment to funding basic preventative health care we can make significant inroads in the fight against poverty. But we have to clearly talk about this those services for what they are: comprehensive family planning services. The ability to control when and how one reproduces is the first step to being able to write one’s own destiny. So while I’ll applaud the President for making it a priority in his second term, I will believe it is so when we start removing inhumane obstacles to reproductive health care worldwide.
5. Violence Against Women Act
There is really nothing to applaud here — President Obama had to call on Congress to re-authorize a bill that is designed to put abusers and rapists in jail and help victims of domestic violence and sexual violence recover and rehabilitate. And the two representatives from the right delivering the evening’s rebuttal voted against renewal just earlier in the day because it “goes too far.” So having the President make passage a pressure point on Congress is a necessary reminder that despite any re-branding, the GOP remains a party that protects abusers and coddles rapists.
One final thought. The evening held a lot of red meat for progressives and liberals. Voting rights reform. Calling on Congress to give the victims of gun violence a vote on gun safety legislation. Climate change. Infrastructure spending. Equal treatment and benefits for our troops. Immigration reform. And, of course, a renewed commitment to protecting our safety net programs of Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security. But glaringly absent tonight was any mention of the assault on reproductive health care in this country. The Inauguration was held in the shadow of Roe, and the President was silent. He was silent again. And that’s not good. Not when states have taken to rolling back abortion access as much as the courts will let them and when Congress makes ending Title X and re-criminalizing abortion its top legislative priorities rather than jobs or anything else. It was more than a missed opportunity, it was a failure of vision because without the fundamental right to control procreation, none of the other economic policies laid out in the State of the Union have much teeth.
There was a lot to love in the speech and a lot for feminists to work toward implementing. But until our leaders understand how choice is at the heart of all our domestic policies then we’re a long way to real equality.
Photo from intelphotos via flickr.