Top 5 Feminist Moments in the State of the Union

Expectations were high for President Obama’s sixth State of the Union address, and he did not disappoint. He managed to tackle a myriad of issues that impact women and families, from reproductive rights to fair pay, highlighting them as a national priority. To much applause, Obama also gave much-needed attention to just how integral working women are to the nation. Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, says that “never before in a State of the Union message has a president of the United States put in central focus the role of women in the economy.”

For those of you who couldn’t tune in, here are our top five most feminist talking points from the president’s speech:

1. Affordable childcare

In today’s economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality child care more than ever. It’s not a nice-to-have: it’s a must-have. So it’s time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.

The president explained that when his grandfather went off to fight in World War II, the nation provided universal childcare because it needed women in the workforce to keep the economy strong. Fast forward to now, and the cost of childcare has been steadily going up for decades; in some states, it can cost as much as college tuition to have an infant in professional childcare. For mothers who must work or want to work, finding reliable and reasonably priced childcare can present a significant barrier to employment.

That’s why Obama hopes to make childcare more affordable for working families with young children, providing them with a tax cut of up to $3,000 per child per year.

2. Paid sick leave

We are the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers. … And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home. So I’ll be taking new action to help states adopt paid leave laws of their own. And since paid sick leave won where it was on the ballot last November, let’s put it to a vote right here in Washington.

Women make up two-thirds of low-wage workers and are often the ones expected to care for sick family members. And for many women, a sniffle from their toddlers can mean not making rent or even losing a job. Forty-three percent of women working in the private sector aren’t allowed any paid sick days, and women-dominated industries such as childcare or food service are those most likely not to grant paid sick leave. Family advocates have had piecemeal success in getting paid sick leave legislation passed in a handful of cities and states, but there’s still no sweeping federal law on the books.

That’s why Obama challenged our gridlocked Congress to act, saying “Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave.”

3. Equal pay for equal work

This Congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work. It’s 2015. It’s time.

It has been more than 50 years since the Equal Pay Act was passed, but women still make only 77 cents for every dollar men earn–with the pay gap being even wider for women of color. In a year’s time, those 23 cents translate into 89 weeks of food, 3,000 gallons of gas and more than a year of rent. By the end of her life, a working woman has lost more than $1 million in earnings compared to her male counterpart. And this hurts entire families, as women are the breadwinners of 4 in 10 American households with children. Despite all these facts, Republicans have repeatedly blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would require employers to prove that any wage disparities were tied solely to qualifications and not gender.

4. Reproductive rights

We still may not agree on a woman’s right to choose, but surely, we can agree it’s a good thing that teen pregnancies and abortions are nearing all-time lows, and that every woman should have access to the health care that she needs.

In a political climate where state TRAP laws and other restrictive regulations are encroaching on the reproductive autonomy of women, Washington should take leadership in upholding the rights that are enshrined in Roe v. Wade. Though Obama tiptoed around the abortion issue on this one, he gave a tacit endorsement to women being able to decide their futures, implying that teen pregnancy and abortion rates go down when women are given access to birth control and sex education. With the Hobby Lobby decision whittling away at the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act, it was encouraging to see our nation’s president support reproductive health.

5. The rights of marginalized groups

Making it clear that his SOTU was about giving power to groups that categorically have been denied rights, the president also took a moment to advocate for some of our country’s less visible citizens. Last night marked the first time that words “transgender,” “lesbian” or “bisexual” were spoken in a State of the Union speech. Obama also acknowledged the unique plight of undocumented mothers, saying “that no one benefits when a hardworking mom is snatched from her child.”

And finally, we would be remiss to not mention the biggest *mic drop* moment of the evening:

Photo of Obama during the SOTU courtesy of The White House



Associate editor of Ms. magazine