President Obama: “This is what a feminist looks like”
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, June 14, 2016 – In keeping with the US administration’s focus on exploring and enhancing opportunities for women and girls, the White House convened the first-ever United State of Women Summit headlined by President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and featuring First Lady Michelle Obama and media mogul Oprah Winfrey in an armchair conversation on ‘Trailblazing the Path for the Next Generation of Women’.
Over 5,000 activists, mostly women, packed the cavernous Walter E. Washington Convention Center from dawn to dusk, Tuesday, to explore critical issues impacting women and girls including economic empowerment, violence against women, health and wellness, civic engagement, education, and entrepreneurship.
Looking around at the huge gathering, President Obama said, “I may be a little grayer than I was eight years ago, but this is what a feminist looks like”.
His administration together with private-sector companies, foundations and organizations announced $50 million in commitments, along with new policies and partnerships which would continue to expand opportunities for women and girls and ensure they have equal rights, treatment and protections.
Dwelling on the progress made by women in various fields including space, sports, education, entrepreneurship and entertainment, Obama noted, “Women are leading America at every level of society from Hollywood to Silicon Valley, from the c-suite to the federal bench, to the Federal Reserve”.
While recognizing “there are women who have never had more opportunity”, the President conceded “there are a lot of women who are still stuck in the toughest of economic circumstances”. He lamented that “workplace policies still look like they are straight out of Mad Men” and made a strong case for implementing equal pay for equal work, paid family and sick leave, affordable child care, raising the minimum wage, and paid maternity leave, among other benefits for women who work.
Women still earn about 78 cents compared to men for the same work. Just ahead of the White House Summit, 28 of America’s leading companies – including Amazon, American Airlines, Accenture, Cisco, Deloitte, Gap Inc., PepsiCo, Pinterest, Staples — committed to closing the gender pay gap.
Empowering women and girls remains a work-in-progress, more often than not characterized by baby steps at a time.
Quoting Shirley Chisholm who said, “The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begin when the doctor says, ‘It’s a girl’”, Obama assured, “We have been working to change the stereotypes”.
But, he admitted, “We need to keep changing the attitude that raises our girls to be demure, and our boys to be assertive; that criticizes our daughters for speaking out, and our sons for shedding a tear”. He underscored the “need to keep changing a culture that shines a particularly unforgiving light on women and girls of color”.
Regarding global efforts to promote gender parity worldwide, he declared, “I’ve made advancing gender equality a foreign policy priority”.
The commander-in-chief decried the ideology that leads terrorist organizations Boko Haram to kidnap school girls and ISIL to enslave and rape women which “is the same ideology that leads to instability and violence and terrorism”, he said.
The US is working to build a future “where women and girls, no matter where they live, are free from fear of violence”, Obama told the crowd at the Convention Center.
Vice President Biden spoke for almost an hour on an issue of utmost priority to him – ending violence against women and girls. “This has literally been, not figuratively, the cause of my life”, he said. “Every single woman has a fundamental right to live her life free of violence”.
Alas, violence against women and girls remains a global epidemic. UN Women estimates that 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives.
“We have a worldwide problem”, Biden told the White House Summit gathering. “It’s not just a problem in the United States. I’ve thought about this since I got engaged in this in 1970. It’s ultimately about the abuse of power. It’s all about power”, he emphasized.
Biden, who authored the Violence Against Women Act, conceded that changing laws isn’t enough. “We have to change the national culture”, he said, underscoring, “There is never a cultural justification for the dehumanization of another human”.
He believed it was imperative “to take off the social blinders that make it easy for people to overlook sexual violence”. Changing the social norm would empower men and women and “transform bystanders into advocates”, he reasoned.
“We have to give women and girls a greater voice. But that’s not enough”, he said, adding, “We have to ensure that their voices will be heard”.
In an address both powerful and eloquent, he noted, “If we free women with the same opportunities, we free men too. We free humanity”. After all, “Every single solitary thing a man can do, a woman can do as well”, he said.
The Vice President was upbeat about the future. “The passion and intellectual horsepower in this room today can only mean one thing: Good things will happen”, he predicted. “Change is coming”.
In an inspiring and eagerly awaited conversation with Oprah Winfrey, First Lady Michelle Obama, told the gathering, “Our first job in life as women is to get to know ourselves”.
And she had advice for women juggling many tasks, playing multitude roles, and trying to find balance. “If you don’t prioritize yourself, you constantly fall lower and lower on your own list”, she cautioned.
To young girls seeking mentors in order to overcome challenges, she said, “Surround yourself with goodness. Surround yourself with people who uplift you, who hold you up”. On dealing with haters, she believed, “The best revenge is success”.
When Winfrey asked her, What can men do, she replied, “Be Better. Be better fathers. Be better husbands. Be better employers”.
The First Lady announced $20 million in new commitments to her initiative ‘Let Girls Learn’ whose mission is to get 62 million girls into schools worldwide, thereby empowering the next generation of women. “The work that we’re doing on girls’ education is something I’ll do the rest of my life”, she vowed.
Regarding her passion for public service long before she became First Lady, she revealed, “I wanted to wake up inspired – to do something greater than myself”.
She told the Summit gathering, “My hope is that people leave here inspired and ready to do something….. Not everybody can be famous, but everybody can be great”, she said.
Capping off an eventful day chock-a-block with speeches, seminars, workshops, exhibits, music and more, this was a powerful conversation between two powerful role models for women and girls everywhere. “You make me proud to spell my name W-O-M-A-N”, Winfrey said, quoting renowned poet, author and activist, the late Dr. Maya Angelou.
Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Obama, and Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, gushed, this is “such an inspiring day, surrounded by hope for the future of gender equality”.
Lakshmi Puri, Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, declared, “Women have, women are, and women will change the world for a Planet 5050″.
She told Summit participants, “You have to prove that gender equality is not mission impossible. It’s mission possible”.
Hollywood actress Sophia Bush, who has made empowering women and girls her main mission, emphasized, “Ensuring all girls around the world have access to education is a vital component of any solution”.
The ground-breaking Summit which drew leaders of the public and private sector industries, students, advocates, entertainers, and athletes, was convened by the White House Council on Women and Girls, and hosted in partnership with the State Department, Labor Department, the Aspen Institute, and Civic Nation.