Why Obama’s SOTU was great for women…

By Erin Arizzi 

On the web today there has been quite a bit of discussion about whether last night’s State of the Union address was good for women. Or rather, whether it was good enough.

Maya at Feministing (and others) point out that Obama addressed women using relational language (as mothers, wives, and daughters) rather than addressing them as citizens. It’s true that this language is expressive of the patriarchal values and attitudes that continue to shape political rhetoric in this country. If you think these ladies are being crazy feminists, try to imagine a politician giving a speech where he addressed men using language like this:

“We know our economy is stronger when our husbands, fathers, and sons can find decent paying jobs in a strong domestic economy”

Weird right? It’s weird because we don’t tend to consider men in terms of their relationships with women. Men are the assumed subjects of political address, and thus, women are addressed in terms of their relationships to men.

And that really sucks. Writing this is getting me all annoyed about it in a deeply philosophical way. I want to tell you all about Simone de Beauvoir’s diagnosis of this very problem back in the 1940s, and demonstrate my rage over the fact that we are still having this conversation. But that’s not why I am writing this post.

I’m writing this post because in spite of the things that Obama did not say about the state of women in this Union in last night’s speech, I think it was a good speech for us. He did not say anything about abortion, choice, Roe v. Wade, or reproductive health justice. I would have loved for him to say those things. But he did say a lot about the systemic problems that keep many Americans from achieving their dreams.

Here are some examples:

“Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.”

Universal preschool is not just good for kids, it’s good for women in a few different ways outlined really wonderfully here. Briefly, it’s good for single moms, for working parents, and for educators. Preschool is a safe place for kids to go while their parents are at work, and more preschools mean more jobs for teachers. There’s also the matter that preschool is a great predictor of future academic success for kids. It’s a serious win win.

“And I ask this Congress to declare that women should earn a living equal to their efforts, and finally pass the Paycheck Fairness Act this year.”

Obviously we need the government to enact this law, which will help amend the gender pay gap. But what I really love about this part of the speech is that the POTUS does not stop at equal pay for equal work. He keeps going:

“We know our economy is stronger when we reward an honest day’s work with honest wages. But today, a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $14,500 a year. … Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour.”

My jaw dropped when he said these words. They are very reasonable words, but considering the power American Corporations like Wal-Mart now hold (at the expense of the American worker), these words felt downright radical. Many of the beneficiaries of an increase in minimum wage (I think it’s safe to say, the majority) would be women. Women are vastly overrepresented in service sector jobs.

There was more, of course. The president offered his support to The Violence Against Women Act, and he mentioned more than once the bravery of our women in combat.

Maybe I was blown away by the President because I’m writing from North Carolina, and right now, I am hungry for old-fashioned liberalism. But I was blown away, because even if he only said the word “women” seven times, the policies he outlined in his speech– if he can manage to get them through– would transform the lives of not just American women, but all those who are misrepresented by political rhetoric (the tired, the poor, the huddled masses).

Erin Arizzi is a the Communications Intern at NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina. She is also a PhD student and teaching fellow in Communication Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has a Masters Degree in Rhetoric from UNC-CH, and a BA in English from Villanova University in Pennsylvania. 

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