Back in June when the White House held its inaugural United State of Women Summit day-long summit, one of the biggest highlights was President Obama’s speech where he boldly declared: “this is what a feminist looks like”. It was the phrase that was shared far and wide in the media and on the internet, but if you’ve been paying close attention to POTUS since he took office in January 2009, you’ll know that he has been declaring his feminism from day one.
His very first act as Commander in Chief was to sign the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law. He has declared war on the wage gap, signed the Girls Count Act into law in 2015 which designates more aid to helping girls in the developing world get an education, traveled to countries such as India, Vietnam and Kenya and given powerful speeches about the need for equal rights and empowering women, chatted with Misty Copeland about the power of girls having role models, and even spoken up about violence against women, saying “real men do not hurt women”.
We could also go on and on about his intersectional feminism in the areas of immigration, prison reform and LGBTQ rights, but we think you get the idea. This man walks the talk and our country is better off for it. In a recent essay for Glamour Magazine (yeah he’s cool like that, isn’t afraid to put pen to paper for a popular women’s publication), he shared some personal reasons why feminism isn’t just an awesome idea, but a lived reality for him because he has two daughters.
He says he is optimistic for their futures because it is an extraordinary time to be a woman.
“The progress we’ve made in the past 100 years, 50 years, and, yes, even the past eight years has made life significantly better for my daughters than it was for my grandmothers. And I say that not just as President but also as a feminist. In my lifetime we’ve gone from a job market that basically confined women to a handful of often poorly paid positions to a moment when women not only make up roughly half the workforce but are leading in every sector, from sports to space, from Hollywood to the Supreme Court,” he writes.
“I’ve witnessed how women have won the freedom to make your own choices about how you’ll live your lives—about your bodies, your educations, your careers, your finances. Gone are the days when you needed a husband to get a credit card. In fact, more women than ever, married or single, are financially independent.”
As he vowed to continue using the remainder of his time in office to promoting policies that make the country more equal for everyone, because he knows there is still a long way to go despite our progress, no.44 makes an important point that legislation can only go so far. There has to be an attitude change in order for gender equality to fully be realized everywhere.
“As far as we’ve come, all too often we are still boxed in by stereotypes about how men and women should behave. One of my heroines is Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, who was the first African American to run for a major party’s presidential nomination. She once said, ‘The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, ‘It’s a girl.’ We know that these stereotypes affect how girls see themselves starting at a very young age, making them feel that if they don’t look or act a certain way, they are somehow less worthy. In fact, gender stereotypes affect all of us, regardless of our gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation,” he explained.
He points to the women in his own life who have opened his eyes to the burdens that are placed on women everyday. His mother spent time in developing countries empowering women, his grandmother worked her way up in a bank until she hit a glass ceiling, and his own wife Michelle shouldering the bulk of the responsibility of raising his daughters and looking after the home while he balanced his political career beginning in the Illinois state legislature and a teaching job as a law professor.
It wasn’t until he had two daughters that the inequality became even more visceral.
“So I’d like to think that I’ve been pretty aware of the unique challenges women face—it’s what has shaped my own feminism. But I also have to admit that when you’re the father of two daughters, you become even more aware of how gender stereotypes pervade our society. You see the subtle and not-so-subtle social cues transmitted through culture. You feel the enormous pressure girls are under to look and behave and even think a certain way,” he said.
One sure sign of a woke feminist, especially male, is the acknowledgment of the narrow ideals of masculinity which can keep men feeling like they too need to conform, and usually to a standard that subjugates women in a number of ways to prove strength or superiority.
“It’s easy to absorb all kinds of messages from society about masculinity and come to believe that there’s a right way and a wrong way to be a man. But as I got older, I realized that my ideas about being a tough guy or cool guy just weren’t me. They were a manifestation of my youth and insecurity. Life became a lot easier when I simply started being myself,” he recalls.
“So we need to break through these limitations. 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. We need to keep changing the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality and rewards men for theirs.”
Growing up without a dad forced him to really think about and form his own identity as a man, and how he sees the value in allowing all children to be able to do the same today away from harmful norms and outdated stereotypes. Like both he and Vice President Joe Biden have made a point of focusing on over the past 8 years, there needs to be greater education and knowledge about how masculine ideals can often play a major role in contributing to rape culture, sexual assault and continued cycles of domestic violence.
“We need to keep changing the attitude that permits the routine harassment of women, whether they’re walking down the street or daring to go online. We need to keep changing the attitude that teaches men to feel threatened by the presence and success of women. We need to keep changing the attitude that congratulates men for changing a diaper, stigmatizes full-time dads, and penalizes working mothers. We need to keep changing the attitude that values being confident, competitive, and ambitious in the workplace—unless you’re a woman. Then you’re being too bossy, and suddenly the very qualities you thought were necessary for success end up holding you back,” he said.
For President Obama, changing the narratives around women of color in modern culture are also important to him, as he has witnessed incessant racism directed at his wife Michelle, despite her incredible grace, dignity and poise in everything she does. In her recent speech at the DNC, FLOTUS gave a powerful statement of what it means as a black woman, living in a house that was built by slaves and who a large section of the African American population never thought would witness a black family living in, to see her daughters freely playing on the White House lawn because of the strides that have been made.
As a feminist, President Obama recognizes the multitude of intersections that need to be addressed in the fight to eliminate inequality, and he implores other men and boys to stand up and know that this is also their battle. At he end of his essay, he pointed to the historic nomination of Hillary Clinton, who is the first woman nominated by a major political party to run for President of the United States in a general election.
She broke a 200+ year barrier which is going to allow a whole generation of young women to know what is possible at the highest level for them.
“Two hundred and forty years after our nation’s founding, and almost a century after women finally won the right to vote, for the first time ever, a woman is a major political party’s presidential nominee. No matter your political views, this is a historic moment for America. And it’s just one more example of how far women have come on the long journey toward equality…That’s what twenty-first century feminism is about: the idea that when everybody is equal, we are all more free,” he concluded.
Like he has said before, prosperity is not “just about the Benjamins; it’s about the Tubmans too“. We are certainly going to miss President Obama, but we are incredibly grateful to have seen a national leader commit to ensuring people who grow up in this country are afforded equal opportunities and treated equally. You can read his full essay in Glamour Magazine by clicking here.