What Obama Doesn't Understand About Gender Inequality

More

Caring for children and other loved ones makes it harder for women (and some men) to keep up.

slaughter_obamainaug_post.jpg
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

President Obama's second Inaugural had a lot to say about relations between the sexes. To begin with, this was the rainbow inauguration. From the selection of speakers to the speeches themselves, the full diversity of America was on display. Michael Cohen of the Century Foundation tweeted: "A Puerto Rican Sup Ct Justice, a black invocation speaker, a Jewish emcee, a Southern senator, a black president, a Brooklyn choir #America." And President Obama described the tides of U.S. history as waves of one social movement after another seeking the rights guaranteed them by the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence: Seneca Falls (women), Selma (African-Americans), and Stonewall (gay and lesbian Americans). He was setting the stage for finishing unfinished business for women and for the LGBT community, as well as for immigrants and for social justice overall.

Obama's speech and the ceremony as a whole made me proud and happy. The poetry and power of his language, his vision of what this country has been and can be again, his knitting together of the tapestry that is America brought a lump to my throat, one more time. But after the passion of the moment, I am left with the sober realization that Obama still hasn't taken to heart the full extent of discrimination against women. The reason women's rights and gay rights are unfinished business is that both women and non-heterosexual men and women still deviate from the unspoken norm, the unconscious, reflexive view of what a breadwinner, a citizen, or a bridegroom looks like: a straight (white) man. Indeed, it's precisely this "deviation," or difference, that makes diversity so valuable; people who look different are treated differently by others, have different life experiences, and bring different perspectives to the table. But until we change the norm itself, learn to reshape our workplaces and our expectations around a different image of what normal is, those differences will still be penalized.

Obama seems to miss this deeper connection. One of his most rousing lines was his claim that "if we are created equal then surely the love we bear to one another must be equal as well." That was his reference to the struggle for gay rights. For women he said, "For our journey is not complete until our wives, mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts." Equal pay for equal work certainly remains an issue for women, particularly women of color, but white women who do not have children earn the same or more than men. It is children who make the difference for the women who take care of them either as primary or even as equal caregivers. We do not have enough men in this position to have reliable data, but anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that men who are primary or equal caregivers pay an equal penalty.

Men and women take care of their children, their parents, or indeed their spouses out of the love they bear them. But this love is not treated equally at all, in the workplace or indeed in society as a whole.

The rainbow of the inauguration was sadly counter-pointed by the signing ceremony immediately afterwards, in which Obama sat at his desk surrounded by six men and one woman to sign the cabinet nominations for four men who will make up his national security team. Which was ceremony and which was substance? If we are ever going to see a real rainbow in the halls of power, we need to think much harder about equality and ... love.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Anne-Marie Slaughter is the president of the New America Foundation and the Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. She was previously the director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department and the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. More

From 2009-2011, Slaughter served as Director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State, the first woman to hold that position. After leaving the State Department, she received the Secretary's Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor conferred by the State Department, for her work leading the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. She also received a Meritorious Honor Award from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). 

Prior to her government service, Slaughter was the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs from 2002-2009. She has written or edited six books, including A New World Order (2004) and The Idea That Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World (2007). From 1994-2002, Slaughter was the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law and director of the International Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School. She received a B.A. from Princeton, an M.Phil and D.Phil in international relations from Oxford, where she was a Daniel M. Sachs Scholar, and a J.D. from Harvard.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in The Sexes

From This Author

Just In