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Obama still fumbles with gender issues

Doug Mills/The New York Times

This week President Obama traveled to sub-Saharan Africa for a homecoming of sorts. While there, he had a message for the African people: do better by African women. The problem is that he delivered the message to African men.

"The single best indicator of whether a nation will succeed is how it treats its women," said the president. "If you want your country to grow and succeed, you have to empower your women."

Maybe it's the writer in me, but there's something about these words that doesn't quite match the sentiment. Obama's language treats women as objects, lesser figures to men who lack the agency to create their own destinies. As my friend Heather Hurlburt, a fellow at the New America Foundation, said to me in flagging the speech, "A nation is mostly likely to succeed if women are part of the fabric, part of the decision-making structures, not being acted upon."

Now, one might argue that Obama is tailoring his remarks to an audience that is perhaps more inculcated in patriarchal norms and language than the United States.

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The problem is that a) it's pretty hard to talk convincingly about female empowerment when you're talking about it in terms of what men should do and b) Obama does this all the time.

Back in 2013, he referred in his State of the Union to "our wives, mothers, and daughters," which led to the drafting of a White House petition asking the president to stop defining "women by their relationship to other people."

In 2011, he got pilloried for citing the fact that he is "the father of two daughters" to justify his opposition to allowing women under age 17 from buying Plan B emergency contraception over the counter. He didn't want girls buying a medication that he said "could end up having an adverse effect." Considering that the president has also joked about using drones against boys who "get any ideas" with his daughters, and continuing their Secret Service protection so that when they start dating "they are going to be surrounded by men with guns," it seems the president is less worried about the adverse effects of contraception medication and more about what happens before that medication is needed. It's hard to imagine the president expressing the same concern if he had two sons.

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Indeed, that Obama is the "father of two daughters" is something of a regular talking point for him. It's one he frequently uses to explain his support for women's issues, like when he praised the San Antonio Spurs earlier this year for hiring a female coach. "As somebody who has got two daughters," said Obama, "it makes me feel good when excellence is recognized regardless of gender."

Perhaps his concern for female empowerment should exist — and be expressed — irrespective of the gender of his offspring.

Now I don't mean to beat up on the president. As Rebecca Traister, a writer for New York Magazine and the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry,'' said to me, "You have to be a really active resistor to the way that language in America is just soaked with paternalistic attitudes." So much of this kind of gendered language is subconscious. We don't much think about it when we use it. And like so many men (myself included), Obama has certainly evolved on this issue. A couple of years ago he called Kamala Harris, "the nation's best-looking attorney general." Later he referred to the gaffe as "a useful teaching moment" for him about judging women not on their "appearance" but on their "merits."

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And his speech in Kenya was excellent and it directly challenged his audience to make female empowerment a priority. But the president still has a frustratingly is a tin ear when it comes to issues around gender. So long as he talks about women as if they are a challenge to be acted upon and defines them by their relationship to men, rather than their capabilities and promise as individuals (i.e., the same way we talk about men and boys), progress will be hard to come by.

Michael A. Cohen's column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.

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