Is Obama Changing the Way Washington Works for Women?

By Libby Parker*

On April 6th, 2011, the Center for American Progress and American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies held a special presentation entitled ‘Obama in Office: Assessing the First Two Years’. I tuned into the live webcast to catch the third and final discussion panel: ‘Has President Obama Changed the Way Washington Works? Obama, Lobbyists, Women, and Managing the Executive Branch,’ featuring presentations from Jennifer Lawless, Beryl Radin, and James A. Thurber.

While Radin and Thurber criticized the relative lack of change in the current administration in terms of executive management and the role of lobbyists respectively, in her discussion of women in policy and issues of representation Jennifer Lawless, Associate Professor of Government and Director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, stepped forward to sing the President’s praises.

Professor Lawless prefaced her presentation with a reaffirmation of her long-term support for Obama, stating “I am happy to report that I do not think my alliance was misplaced”.

Since his election, President Obama has issued a record number of Presidential Proclamations addressing the specific needs and experiences of women and girls, drawing national attention to everything from Women’s History Month to April’s National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. On the policy side of things, the Lawless cited the 15 million women now insured thanks to the Affordable Care Act as well as the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act as further signs of success. In addition, Lawless briefly touched on the positive normative implications of the recently created White House Council on Women and Girls as well as the White House Advisor on Violence Against Women. Despite uncertainty concerning their effectiveness (neither the Council nor the Advisor position has been clearly charged with a concrete mission), Lawless emphasized the importance of these ‘baby-steps’.

Turning her attention to issues of representation, however, Lawless recognized the shortcomings of the Democratic Party in general. For the first time since 1979, the 2010 midterm elections marked a net decrease in the number of women in Congress. In addition, of the 100 largest cities, 93 are currently governed by male mayors. According to Lawless, the blame falls largely on the shoulders of Democrats, the party with the largest number of female representatives including roughly 77% of the women who served in the 110th Congress. Despite his party’s shortcomings, Lawless was quick to congratulate the President for his achievements in terms of executive appointments, from ushering in the nomination of two female Supreme Court Justices, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, to appointing Janet Napolitano Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Overall, Lawless proclaimed Obama’s first two years a success, stating that the President has done all he could in terms of demonstrating his commitment to the advancement of women and rating his performance ‘very good,’ particularly in comparison to previous administrations.

*Libby Parker is a Research and Programs Intern with the National Council for Research on Women. She graduated with an M.A. Honours in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

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Excellent. Very insightful, and something that does not appear in headlines but is crucially important to women's progress nonetheless. Great post.