President Barack Obama just published a sweeping editorial in Glamour magazine this week on the topic of feminism, titled “This is what a feminist looks like.” He hit all the right notes, striking a balance between celebrating the achievements of women in his lifetime, and insightfully characterizing the work that still needs to be done.
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. 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.
So we shouldn’t downplay how far we’ve come. That would do a disservice to all those who spent their lives fighting for justice. At the same time, there’s still a lot of work we need to do to improve the prospects of women and girls here and around the world. And I’ll keep working on good policies—from equal pay for equal work to protecting reproductive rights.
It is unfortunate that pro-women policies are still a contentious issue. The pay gap persists; Republican lawmakers have been passing unprecedented restrictions to women’s access to abortions; schools that teach abstinence only education don’t empower young women to make informed choices about their bodies, and increase the chance that a teenage girl will become pregnant and lose out on her education and lifetime earnings; transwomen cannot use a public bathroom without fear of harassment, and now they may face legal charges in many states; rape and victim blaming are still rampant.
Women have fought hard to reach the status in society they now enjoy, and we will keep fighting until we have won full equality. Policies are not the whole story. Obama put his finger on one of the biggest remaining issues:
As far as we’ve come, all too often we are still boxed in by stereotypes about how men and women should behave.
Both women and men suffer the negative effects of social pressures that dictate to them from early childhood how they should behave according to their gender. As children reach adulthood, the expectations change from whether they should play with trucks or dolls, to how they should manage their careers and family lives. More insidiously, gender norms inform our character traits throughout our lives.
Gendered double standards stop fathers from being equal parents to mothers by stigmatizing the dad who dares to stay home and care for his young daughter. They stop women from working the same jobs as men by labelling the traits of a successful man as the traits of a “bossy” woman, effectively erecting barriers that make it harder for women to achieve leadership positions.
The President speaks from his own experience as a working father whose legislative positions often took him away from home. At the time, he was unaware of the disparity between expectations of him as a father, and Michelle as a mother. Now he reflects:
Like many working mothers, she worried about the expectations and judgments of how she should handle the trade-offs, knowing that few people would question my choices. And the reality was that when our girls were young, I was often away from home serving in the state legislature, while also juggling my teaching responsibilities as a law professor. I can look back now and see that, while I helped out, it was usually on my schedule and on my terms. The burden disproportionately and unfairly fell on Michelle.
Obama points the way forward, speaking as a father who is working hard to teach his daughters to navigate the world as empowered young women, and using his position in Oval Office to amplify his message:
As a parent, helping your kids to rise above these constraints is a constant learning process. Michelle and I have raised our daughters to speak up when they see a double standard or feel unfairly judged based on their gender or race—or when they notice that happening to someone else. It’s important for them to see role models out in the world who climb to the highest levels of whatever field they choose. And yes, it’s important that their dad is a feminist, because now that’s what they expect of all men.
Finally, he concludes with a simple sentence that eloquently sums up the entirety of feminism:
That’s what twenty-first century feminism is about: the idea that when everybody is equal, we are all more free.