In his latest gesture on women's issues, President Obama signed an executive order this afternoon creating a White House Council on Women and Girls.
“The purpose of this council is to ensure that American women and girls are treated fairly in all matters of public policy,” Obama said in a statement. “My administration has already made important progress toward that goal. I am proud that the first bill I signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act. But I want to be clear that issues like equal pay, family leave, child care and others are not just women’s issues, they are family issues and economic issues. Our progress in these areas is an important measure of whether we are truly fulfilling the promise of our democracy for all our people. I am confident that Valerie Jarrett and Tina Tchen will guide the Council wisely as its members address these important issues.”
The council, the White House says, "will provide a coordinated federal response to the challenges confronted by women and girls and to ensure that all Cabinet and Cabinet-level agencies consider how their policies and programs impact women and families."
It will be led by close Obama adviser and friend Valerie Jarrett.
"I sign this order not just as president, but also as a son, a grandson, a husband and a father, because growing up, I saw my mother put herself through school to follow her passion for helping others," Obama said. "But I also saw how she struggled to raise me and my sister on her own, worrying about how she would pay the bills, educate herself and provide for us."
He said he signed the order (read it here) to honor all the women who came before him, such as his grandmother who was a bank vice president but was denied promotions because of her gender. He and said the fight for gender equality is far from over, citing pay disparities, domestic violence, and the relatively few women in Congress and in the executive offices of major companies.
"I think we need to take a hard look at where we're falling short, and who we're leaving out, and what that means for the prosperity and the vitality of our nation," said Obama, who as part of International Women's History Month also last week with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton jointly announced a new post of ambassador at large for women's issues around the world.
"And I want to be very clear: These issues are not just women's issues. When women make less than men for the same work, it hurts families who find themselves with less income, and have to work harder just to get by. When a job doesn't offer family leave, that also hurts men who want to help care for a new baby or an ailing parent. When there's no affordable child care, that hurts children who wind up in second-rate care, or spending afternoons alone in front of the television set. And when any of our citizens cannot fulfill their potential because of factors that have nothing to do with their talent, their character, their work ethic, that says something about the state of our democracy."
The American Association of University Women issued a statement applauding the move.
“AAUW is delighted that President Obama has decided to formally give women and girls a seat at the White House table,” said the group's executive director, Linda D. Hallman, who will attend the White House signing ceremony. “The council will help ensure that the unique issues and challenges facing women and girls continue to be at the forefront of the administration’s policies and priorities.”
Lisa M. Maatz, AAUW director of public policy and government relations, added that the Clinton administration's White House Office for Women’s Initiatives and Outreach and the President’s InterAgency Council on Women were disbanded by President George W. Bush.
“We applaud President Obama for the creation of this council and for his leadership on behalf of women and girls across the country,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “In these tough economic times, American women and their families are struggling with a wide range of issues, not the least of which is access to quality, affordable health care. We look forward to working with the president and the White House Council on Women and Girls on issues that are critical to strengthening women’s health, including providing comprehensive health care information and services, reducing unintended pregnancies and decreasing the alarming number of sexually transmitted infections.”
The White House release on the council is below, as are Obama's remarks:
The White House release:
The White House Council on Women and Girls will ensure that agencies across the federal government, not just a few offices, take into account the particular needs and concerns of women and girls. The Council will begin its work by asking each agency to analyze their current status and ensure that they are focused internally and externally on women.
In particular, the Council will work to enhance, support and coordinate the efforts of existing programs for women and girls. The Council will also work as a resource for each agency and the White House so that there is a comprehensive approach to the federal government's policy on women and girls. The priorities will be carried out by working closely with the President’s Cabinet Secretaries and relevant agency offices that focus on women and families.
During its first year, the Council will also focus on the following areas:
Improving women’s economic security by ensuring that each of the agencies is working to directly improve the economic status of women.
Working with each agency to ensure that the administration evaluates and develops policies that establish a balance between work and family.
Working hand-in-hand with the Vice President, the Justice Department’s Office of Violence Against Women and other government officials to find new ways to prevent violence against women, at home and abroad.
Finally, the critical work of the Council will be to help build healthy families and improve women’s health care.
The White House Council on Women and Girls will meet regularly, and will serve as a forum for all involved agencies to focus on women.
Initial members of the Council include:
The Secretary of State;
The Secretary of the Treasury;
The Secretary of Defense;
The Attorney General;
The Secretary of Interior;
The Secretary of Agriculture;
The Secretary of Commerce;
The Secretary of Labor;
The Secretary of Health and Human Services;
The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development;
The Secretary of Transportation;
The Secretary of Energy;
The Secretary of Education;
The Secretary of Veterans Affairs;
The Secretary of Homeland Security;
The United States Ambassador to the United Nations;
The United States Trade Representative;
The Director of the Office of Management and Budget;
The Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency;
The Administrator of the Small Business Administration;
The Director of the Office of Personnel Management;
The Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors;
The Director of the National Economic Council; and
The Director of the Domestic Policy Council.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you so much. Well, today, as we continue our celebration of International Women's History Month, I'm proud to sign this executive order establishing the women's -- the White House Council on Women and Girls. It's a Council with a mission that dates back to our founding: to fulfill the promise of our democracy for all our people.
I sign this order not just as a President, but as a son, a grandson, a husband, and a father, because growing up, I saw my mother put herself through school and follow her passion for helping others. But I also saw how she struggled to raise me and my sister on her own, worrying about how she'd pay the bills and educate herself and provide for us.
I saw my grandmother work her way up to become one of the first women bank vice presidents in the state of Hawaii, but I also saw how she hit a glass ceiling -- how men no more qualified than she was kept moving up the corporate ladder ahead of her.
I've seen Michelle, the rock of the Obama family -- (laughter) -- juggling work and parenting with more skill and grace than anybody that I know. But I also saw how it tore at her at times, how sometimes when she was with the girls she was worrying about work, and when she was at work she was worrying about the girls. It's a feeling that I share every day.
In so many ways, the stories of the women in my life reflect the broader story of women in this country -- a story of both unyielding progress and also untapped potential.
Today, women make up a growing share of our workforce and the majority of students in our colleges and our law schools. Women are breaking barriers in every field, from science and business to athletics and the Armed Forces. Women are serving at the highest levels of my administration. And we have Madam Speaker presiding over our House of Representatives. (Applause.) I had the privilege of participating in a historic campaign with a historic candidate, who we now have the privilege of calling Madam Secretary.
But at the same time, when women still earn just 78 cents for every dollar men make; when one in four women still experiences domestic violence in their lifetimes; when women are more than half of our population, but just 17 percent of our Congress; when women are 49 percent of the workforce, but only 3 percent of our Fortune 500 CEOs -- when these inequalities stubbornly persist in this country, in this century, then I think we need to ask ourselves some hard questions. I think we need to take a hard look at where we're falling short, and who we're leaving out, and what that means for the prosperity and the vitality of our nation.
And I want to be very clear: These issues are not just women's issues. When women make less than men for the same work, it hurts families who find themselves with less income, and have to work harder just to get by. When a job doesn't offer family leave, that also hurts men who want to help care for a new baby or an ailing parent. When there's no affordable child care, that hurts children who wind up in second-rate care, or spending afternoons alone in front of the television set.
And when any of our citizens cannot fulfill their potential because of factors that have nothing to do with their talent, their character, their work ethic, that says something about the state of our democracy. It says something about whether we're honoring those words put on paper more than two centuries ago -- whether we're doing our part, like generations before us, to breathe new life into them in our time.
That, above all, is the true purpose of our government. Not to guarantee our success, but to ensure that in America, all things are still possible for all people. Not to solve all our problems, but to ensure that we all have the chance to pursue our own version of happiness. To give our daughters the chance to achieve as greatly as the women who join us today. That's the impact our government can have.
It's the impact of a Health and Human Services Department that funds research by women like Dr. Nina Fedoroff, a biotechnology and life science pioneer -- (applause) -- who won the National Medal of Science in 2006. It's the impact of a Defense Department that works to recruit and promote women -- women, so that women like Sergeant Major Michele Jones, who was the Army's highest ranking enlisted woman before she retired, can strengthen our military with their leadership. (Applause.)
It's the impact of a Department of Education that enforces Title IX, so athletes like -- (applause) -- so athletes like Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes and Lisa Leslie -- (applause) -- have a level playing field to compete and to win. It's the impact of a White House and a Congress that fight for legislation like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, so that all women can get paid what they deserve. (Applause.) I'm very proud this was the very first bill that I signed into law.
And that's why I'm establishing this Council -- not just to continue efforts like these, but to enhance them. The Council will be composed of the heads of every Cabinet and Cabinet-level agency, and will meet on a regular basis. We have many of those Cabinet members here. Some of the men showed up -- we put them in the second row. (Laughter.) But they're going to be fighting -- (applause) -- they're going to be part of this Council, and it's going to meet on a regular basis.
Its purpose is very simple: to ensure that each of the agencies in which they're charged takes into account the needs of women and girls in the policies they draft, the programs they create, the legislation they support. It's not enough to only have individual women's offices at individual agencies, or only have one office in the White House. Rather, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once said, in our government, "¼responsibility for the advancement of women is not the job of any one agency, it's the job of all of them." (Applause.) And she should know -- she helped lead an interagency women's initiative during the Clinton administration.
At the same time, given the critical importance of its work, this Council must have strong leadership from the White House, and direct accountability to me. And that's why I'm appointing Valerie Jarrett, one of my closest advisors and most senior members of my administration, to lead it. Tina Tchen, another senior member of my White House staff, will serve as the Council's Executive Director.
In the end, while many of the challenges women and girls face are new, the work of this Council is not -- it's been with us for generations. Frances Perkins, who was President Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor, and the first woman to serve in the Cabinet -- a great hero of the New Deal -- described it well when she said, "¼I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered, and so establish the rights of others long hence and far distant in geography to sit in the high seats." To sit in the high seats.
That is why I'm standing here today, because of what my mother and grandmother did for me, because of their hard work and sacrifice and unflagging love. That's what Michelle is doing right now, thinking every day about making sure that Malia and Sasha have the same opportunities as anybody's sons do. That's why so many of us are here today, because of the women who came before us, who were determined to see us sit in the high seats: women who reached for the ballot, and raised families, and traveled long, lonely roads to be the first in the boardroom or in the courtroom or on the battlefield and in the factory floor; women who cracked and shattered those glass ceilings, so that my daughters -- and all of our sons and daughters -- could dream a little bigger and reach a little higher.
So now it's up to us to carry that work forward, to ensure that our daughters and granddaughters have no limits on their dreams, no obstacles to their achievements -- and that they have opportunities their mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers never dreamed of. That's the purpose of this Council. Those are the priorities of my presidency. And I look forward to working with all of you to fulfill them in the months and years to come.
All right, so I'm going to go sign this thing. Thank you very much.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.