Why President Obama’s Final State of the Union Matters for Women and Girls
“Tonight marks the eighth year I’ve come here to report on the state of the union. And for this final one, I’m going to try to make it shorter. I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa.” And so began President Barack Obama’s message on Tuesday night. His last State of the Union address hit on four major themes: giving everyone a fair economic shot at achieving the middle class dream, using technology to tackle policy challenges such as climate change, ensuring the nation’s safety without becoming the world’s “policeman,” and reforming our dysfunctional political system.
This speech represents the largest audience the president will have in 2016, and he used it to defend his administration and to reiterate a message of hope and change, as well as one of national pride and civic reconciliation. The president urged all of us to work to cross the partisan divide and not fall prey to fearmongering, to “embrace change as a force for good.” As a nonpartisan organization, we like that message. For our part, we want all elected officials to understand that listening to women is a smart thing to do if you want to get elected — or re-elected.
President Obama delivered what some pundits have equated to a valedictory address in his final State of the Union. But in many respects, last night’s speech was also the mother of all campaign stump speeches. While the president touched on his policy victories as well as outstanding problems yet to be addressed, he did not back away from pointed critiques of opponents who he believes are “peddling fiction” about the state of our union. It was clear that President Obama believes that some of his policies could be rolled back if a Republican succeeds him, and the speech in many ways framed the 2016 campaign in terms of that choice. And, per usual, AAUW’s priority issues were right in the thick of things.
The speech’s opening riff got right to the heart of what Obama sees as the unfinished business of his presidency. “I’ll keep pushing for progress on the work that still needs doing. Fixing a broken immigration system. Protecting our kids from gun violence. Equal pay for equal work, paid leave, raising the minimum wage. All these things still matter to hardworking families; they are still the right thing to do; and I will not let up until they get done.” We were pleased to see the strong shout-out about equal pay in particular, and we hope the Obama administration will finalize the regulations from a series of executive orders before he leaves office. Further, we believe that access to policies that support employees — who balance the demands of their jobs with the needs of their families and their own health and well-being — is critical to the success of our country’s economy.
The president was clearly frustrated with partisan gridlock and vitriol, calling its ongoing impact one of the main regrets of his time in office. He talked about the need for a better, more rational body politic. He called for an end to gerrymandering, which results in the bluest of the blue candidates and the reddest of the red candidates being sent to Congress — with the unrealistic expectation that they’ll collaborate, let alone compromise. He also decried the influence of money in politics, which has unique ramifications for women. Although women are the majority of registered voters, studies show we are less likely to make political contributions (hello, gender pay gap!), and women list fundraising as their biggest barrier to running for elected office. If money remains the most respected and effective form of speech, women become even more marginalized. The president also stressed his support for voting rights, and the need to find ways to remove barriers and encourage more women, especially younger and minority women, to vote. He said he intends to “travel the country to push for reforms,” and we expect he’ll find AAUW members waiting with pertinent questions for him at every stop.
The president reminded us that after years of unpopular executive waivers of No Child Left Behind, a bipartisan bill has finally updated the federal role in K–12 education policy. He boasted that our country has “increased early childhood education, lifted high school graduation rates to new highs, and boosted graduates in fields like engineering.” We will be watching carefully how the new law is implemented to make sure we don’t lose ground in these areas, and that we focus on gender equity in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. President Obama once again pushed for two years of free community college and universal pre-K programs, an idea that AAUW supports. Loan repayment, which the president also mentioned, is an even more significant burden for women, who earn less on average over the course of their lives than their male counterparts.
We loved the president’s shout-out to STEM leading ladies Grace Hopper, Katherine Johnson, and Sally Ride! But much more needs to be done to create an environment in STEM fields that supports success for all women. Although the president boasted of giving “scientists at the National Institutes of Health [NIH] the strongest resources they’ve had in over a decade,” he needs to address the fact that NIH does not conduct legally required Title IX compliance reviews to ensure the universities they fund are addressing gender bias within their research programs. We must hold NIH responsible for ensuring that their billions of dollars go to research institutions that are following all civil rights laws, including anti-sex discrimination laws and Title IX.
Two key AAUW priorities missing from President Obama’s last State of the Union address were the issues of ending violence against women, especially campus sexual assault, as well as the attacks on women’s access to reproductive health services and birth control. That was disappointing to say the least, given the prominence of both issues in the country’s national conversation in 2015.
After the president’s speech, Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC) passed her vice presidential audition with flying colors. The response speech is notoriously hard to deliver — there is no live audience, and you don’t really know what the president will say. While her speech was light on details, Haley was articulate and thoughtful, and showed the experience she has gained from her time as governor. She came to politics by way of the Tea Party, but from her speech last night, it seems like she has learned that extremism doesn’t mix well with effective governing.
As we embark on the 2016 election season, AAUW and the AAUW Action Fund will continue to work with state leaders, branches, and allies to ensure that voters know the registration rules in their state, their rights, and what to bring to the polls on Election Day. Voting is the best way to ensure that women’s voices are heard and that the issues directly affecting women and girls are respected and addressed. We hope you’ll join us!