Women front and center in Obama’s State of the Union address

Analysis: Pay equity, discrimination, sick leave and pre-K dominate a reframed, feminized inequality agenda

President Barack Obama makes his way past members of Congress after delivering his State of the Union speech on Tuesday.
Gary Cameron/Reuters

The focus on working women — vis-a-vis larger themes of income inequality — was the distinguishing feature of this year’s State of the Union address. From GM’s Mary Barra, the factory worker’s daughter who became “CEO of America’s largest automaker,” to Andra Rush, a Detroit-based manufacturer, to Misty DeMars, an unemployed homeowner and mother of two, President Barack Obama emphasized that “women make up about half our workforce” but still face pay and pregnancy discrimination, as well as “Mad Men”–era workplace policies.

Advocates for working families had expected the president to further detail his universal pre-kindergarten proposal — announced during last year’s State of the Union — which would expand early-childhood education programs. But he spoke only in generalities. (The White House website provided more specifics.) Obama instead encouraged the states to pursue early education as part of school reform and promised to assemble a “coalition of elected officials, business leaders and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need.”

“He doesn’t have the support of Congress for a lot of what he wants to do … so the idea of working with CEOs and philanthropists who do want to see some movement (on early childhood education) makes sense,” said Cornell University professor Mildred Warner, whose research has found significant economic returns on investment in child care. Yet a private-sector program, however widespread, would be a mere shadow of universal pre-K funded through tax revenue. (The Administration for Children and Families, charged with overseeing the initiative, was unavailable for comment.)

In terms of concrete legislation, Obama urged Congress to renew emergency unemployment payments to some 1.6 million jobless workers and to pass a bill raising the federal minimum wage for 27 million employees from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour (in three incremental steps). Proving his commitment to this wage increase, he vowed to use his executive authority to “require federal contractors to pay their federally funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour.” 

For struggling families, a higher minimum wage, anti-discrimination laws, paid sick leave and universal pre-K/child care are all critical — and Obama made each one a priority in his speech. States and municipalities have, to varying degrees, pursued their own legislation and ballot measures raising wages and instituting what are broadly called “work supports.”

President Obama emphasized that ‘women make up about half our workforce’ but still face pay and pregnancy discrimination, as well as ‘Mad Men’–era workplace policies.
Click for more on the president's annual policy speech

“The way people experience these issues isn’t necessarily in buckets," said Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs at the National Partnership for Women and Families. "The same person may be paid less than her male co-worker and therefore can’t afford child care, and when her kid gets sick she can’t take leave.” 

But the concern haunting such policies is that, if implemented in isolation or in neutered form, they may not accomplish their intended goal of reducing poverty and the income gap. If, for example, universal pre-K were legislated in the absence of a minimum-wage hike and other programs supporting low-income families, the benefits of early-childhood education could be undermined.

Even as President Obama directed the State of the Union at female constituents, a key base of Democratic support, he avoided the controversial areas of abortion and reproductive rights. Yet just hours before his speech, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would not only reaffirm the ban on federal funding of abortions but, according to the National Women’s Law Center, could restrict access for women facing serious health conditions, eliminate abortion coverage in the private health care market and prohibit Washington, D.C., from using local funds to pay for abortions.

The GOP response to Obama’s address indirectly dealt with reproductive choice. Speaking from a cozy living room, House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., relayed the story of her son Cole, diagnosed at birth with Down syndrome, to illustrate “the potential in every human life.” The congresswoman reframed the president’s themes of income inequality and working families in partisan terms. “The real gap we face today is one of opportunity inequality … and with this administration’s policies, that gap has become far too wide," she said. "Republicans have plans to close the gap … plans that focus on jobs first without more spending, government bailouts, and red tape.”

Neither Rodgers’ speech nor tea party remarks that followed it tackled an increase in the minimum wage, which enjoys popular support across party lines. Going back to the 1990s, said economist John Schmitt at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “when it comes to the federal minimum wage, it’s often the case that, in the middle and early stages, there’s fairly solid opposition from Republicans. But as the discussions move on, Republicans come around and end up supporting it.”

With so much attention on inequality and economic hardship — and on the struggles of working women and mothers — the GOP may face renewed pressure to raise the floor. In this regard, Obama and minimum-wage workers across the nation can only hope that history repeats itself.

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