Unlike New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, I was not offended by Ava DuVernay’s refusal to canonize President Lyndon Baines Johnson in her film “Selma.” The lesson I drew from DuVernay’s skillful recreation of the 1965 Selma civil rights march was that power concedes nothing without a demand.
Speaking of demands, President Barack Obama took a bolder tone than I expected in his State of the Union address last week, boasting about winning two elections and calling on a Republican-led Congress to get on board with his agenda.
They won’t, of course — even the most modest of the president’s demands is likely to be met with hostility and resistance by lawmakers whose only real principle is holding onto power. The 113th Congress narrowly avoided the title of least productive Congress in modern history. The newly seated 114th will be even more hostile to the president.
What does Obama want? As he did last year and as many presidents — including Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan — have before him, he spoke highly of equal pay. Calling on our reputedly useless Congress “to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work,” the president also said we “need affordable, high-quality childcare more than ever” and suggested that Congress should send him a bill “that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave.”
American women began agitating for these things more than half a century ago. The best we got on equal pay was President John F. Kennedy’s Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibited pay discrimination but left women with no mechanism for detecting it in the first place. (The ’63 law came about partly at the urging of unions concerned about men’s wages being undercut when they returned from World War II and resumed the jobs women had filled during the war.)
Nothing captures the lack of progress since better than the signature equal pay bill of the Obama era. Former Goodyear manager Lilly Ledbetter, who was lucky enough to learn from an anonymous note that she was being paid thousands of dollars less than her male counterparts, sued the company after her retirement in 1998. Her case went all the way to the Supreme Court, but she lost her lawsuit on the grounds of failing to file fast enough. In response, Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act shortly after his inauguration. The law allows women who are discriminated against more time to file suit — a benefit of limited usefulness, given that in the absence of strong unions and wage transparency, women are unlikely to find out if they’re being discriminated against in the first place.
Another overdue need is government-subsidized childcare. Women, who still spend far more time on child care than most fathers do, have wanted such support for decades. The first black woman elected to Congress, Shirley Chisholm, introduced a $10 billion (in today’s dollars) childcare bill in 1971. A watered-down version of Chisholm’s bill passed the House and Senate — only to be vetoed by then-President Richard Nixon.
Simply put, there was ample opportunity for President Obama to lead on women’s issues as part of his overall agenda. His lack of a legacy in the face of Congressional obstruction was apparent in 2013, when he told the Congressional Black Caucus, “I have to figure out what I can do outside of Congress through executive actions” and the White House went “on the hunt for anything that [could] move without congressional approval.” Last summer the president declared, “I don’t prefer taking administrative action ... I take executive action only when we have a serious problem, a serious issue, and Congress chooses to do nothing.”
That strategy appears to have paid off, at least partially and at least on certain issues. President Obama has used executive orders, policy directives, signing statements and other administrative measures to do a number of common-sense things our craven Congress wouldn’t do, such as tighten restrictions on gun ownership in the wake of Sandy Hook, live up to our climate-change agreement with China, protect minority voting rights, and delay the deportations of millions of undocumented workers.
Women are not a special interest group. They are over half the population and include people of every race, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation — and the majority of them voted for the president. What have they gotten in return? First, the toothless Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Obama also established an Equal Pay Task Force — a step similar to Reagan’s 1982 Task Force on Legal Equity for Women. And he created the Equal Pay App Challenge, a pointless and patronizing effort to teach women that they are being underpaid and learn how to “negotiate starting pay, request a promotion or a raise, or consider switching fields to a more lucrative career path.” In other words, taking a page from Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, he told women to “lean in.” (Question for the president: if women in low-wage industries switch fields en masse, who will teach children and care for the sick and elderly?) Obama also signed a presidential memorandum directing the Secretary of Labor to require federal contractors to submit data on employee compensation by race and gender.
Data collection and leaning in — that is the best the most powerful man in the world has done for working women. America had its “first black president” in Bill Clinton. We now have a real black president in Barack Obama. Who will be the first president to do more than talk about women’s equality?
I don’t doubt the president’s personal sympathy for women. He’s spoken publicly of his support for a number of bills more comprehensive than those he was able to get through Congress, including the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. But he hasn’t done any better practically than the presidents who preceded him.
As we enter the last two years of the Obama presidency, we are still waiting for the president to do more than talk about women’s equality. These bills, which could help millions of the most vulnerable people in America, including poor women, women of color and children, could have been to President Obama what the Voting Rights Act was to LBJ. Instead, women are supposed to be grateful for an app challenge. Had the technology existed at the time, would the civil rights heroes of the 1960s and 70s have accepted a Voting Rights App Challenge in place of a bill? Would Shirley Chisholm have accepted a memorandum on the collection of childcare data?
As the president said himself in his State of the Union address, he has nothing left to lose. The wealthiest country on earth has no sick pay, no childcare and no mechanism for ensuring that its female workers are paid fairly. That may be largely Congress’ fault, but the president has done little to fix it. Obama has a bully pulpit for almost two more years. If Congress won’t do its job, he can still do his. An executive order mandating wage transparency would be a big step in the right direction (The action the president has already taken prevents employers from firing employees who seek or share information about their compensation, but does not require employers to disclose pay data.) If the president wants to help women, he needs to give them more than an app.