Last night, President Barack Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union address, and his first in his new term. The State of the Union is traditionally delivered annually to both houses of Congress and is meant to comment on the condition of the nation, as well as setting forth the administration’s goals for the next year. And wow, did President Obama put forth some legislative goals, covering everything from the economy to immigration to gun control to education to foreign policy. He even included a substantial nod to women, whose issues drew a clear line between Obama and the Republican Party (which was “taking women’s rights backwards” in the most recent election). Yet, even in 2013, women’s rights still manages to be a concept that many of our politicians just can’t wrap their heads around. As we head into the new year and the new term of Barack Obama’s presidency, let’s examine how his administration measures up on providing equal rights to women and if four more years will really mean change.
The Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare) is the largest piece of health care reform since the implementation of Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960’s. Although Obama had to make many compromises with both Republicans and Democrats to pass the bill, proponents of the bill managed to push it through. The Affordable Care Act is a brilliant piece of legislation in a lot of ways. In fact, many claim that Obama has done more for the health of women than any other president in recent history. Considering the abysmal record of American politicians when it comes to anything related to women, this isn’t a particularly difficult record to achieve. But still, it’s a tall claim. Is it true?
Under this new health care act, health insurance companies are beginning to cover preventative health care measures that apply directly to women, such as mammograms and prenatal care, as well as providing birth control without co-pays, which will save many women hundreds of dollars every year. Insurance companies used to charge higher premiums just because an individual was female, effectively making being a woman a pre-existing condition. Provisions passed by Obamacare no longer allow this. Screening and counseling for victims of domestic violence are also more readily provided and covered, emphasizing that women’s mental and emotional health is as important as their physical and sexual health. Okay, so he’s doing pretty well so far.
However, the Obama administration has fallen short on many of its promises to improve women’s health care, mostly in relation to women’s reproductive rights. While Obama has consistently supported the rights to contraception and safe and legal abortions, his policies have been a little less promising. The Affordable Care Act included the Hyde Amendment, which restricts federal funds (primarily Medicaid) from being used to provide abortions as part of a compromise to ensure its passage in the House. When religious groups protested the required coverage of contraception, Obama tried to appease the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops by allowing a religious exemption for Catholic institutions, despite the fact that many Catholic-affiliated universities and hospitals actually covered contraception in their insurance plans. In Obama’s four years, access to abortion has decreased, although this can be attributed to conservative legislatures pushing back against the administration’s liberal stance on abortion regulations.
But some significant advancements have been made. In 2010, Obama’s budget proposal included a nearly complete abandonment of abstinence-only sexual education programs, many of which have consistently been proven to be ineffective, and pointed instead toward funding for safe sex programs to reduce teenage pregnancy and STDs. In response to the ridiculous comments of Todd Akin during the election about “legitimate rape,” President Obama vehemently spoke against this aspect of rape culture with this statement:
“The views expressed were offensive. Rape is rape. And the idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we are talking about doesn’t make sense to the American people and certainly doesn’t make sense to me. So what I think these comments do underscore is why we shouldn’t have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health care decisions on behalf of women.”
While not direct policies, these statements are an important representation of the administration and they set him apart from many other politicians, including the 22 Republican men who voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women’s Act.
In 2009, President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Equal Pay Act into law, which lifted limitations on women who sued their employer over wage discrimination. Many hoped that it would mark a shift in the inequality in wages: 77 cents to a man’s dollar for white women and nearer to 50 cents to a man’s dollar for women of color. When Congress was held by a majority of Democrats in Obama’s early presidency, there was a chance to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act that would bring the US a step closer to equal pay by closing a loophole that allows employers to get away with discriminatory pay, but the opportunity was wasted. Women have made no significant advancements in wage equality under the Obama administration, something that should be as obvious as the right to vote. However, in his State of the Union address, Obama returned to the issue and urged Congress to finally pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, indicating that there may be room in the future for progress.
So how do you vote?
For me, President Obama’s stance toward women, and the lack of a sane stance from the Republican party, was one of the biggest factors that contributed to me voting for him in the 2012 election. I know politics is never a utopia of magical change and will never be exactly how we want it, but it frustrates me when politicians do not see their actions or apathy in regards to women’s issues as the pressing abuses of human rights that they are.
Under President Obama’s Administration, the White House Council on Women and Girls was formed to provide a coordinated federal response to issues that affect females, the first such council to exist. He is by no means perfect when it comes to implementing women’s rights and he has been willing to make a lot of compromises that sacrifice the advancements of women, an unfortunate occurrence in politics. He is, however, one of the most vocal presidents we have had in support of gender equality and against rape culture. In comparison to most of the politicians in Washington, of whom white males happen to be a majority, he’s practically a radical feminist. But is this “lesser of two evils” enough? Are we making enough progress in the right direction? Time will tell.
Written by Ariela Schnyer