This article is part of a longer feature piece in the Winter 2021 issue of Ms.—”A New Era for Women”—breaking down President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’s promise to “build back better” on women’s rights to health care, economic security and physical safety. Check back every Wednesday for new installations of this series, or get caught up here. And become a member today to read the entire issue—through our app and in print.
During their campaign, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris offered an ambitious platform for women’s rights focused on health care, economic security, work and family, violence against women, global women’s rights and ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Feminist lawmakers and activists are optimistic that the Biden-Harris administration will follow through on these promises to improve women’s lives and bring strong action for gender justice and racial equality.
On the eve of the January 20 inauguration, Ms. spoke with feminists about their hopes for the Biden-Harris administration.
“People Are Policy”: Women at the Leadership Table
Donald Trump presided over the most white and male administration of any recent president. Feminists praised Biden’s picks for leadership positions in his administration and were hopeful about the impact of this more diverse leadership.
“Biden has already spoken his values in the people that he’s choosing for leadership positions, with his choice of vice president, his communications team and his senior leadership team, including people of color and women who are in serious, significant roles,” said Catherine Lhamon, chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights who Biden recently appointed to be deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council for Racial Justice and Equity. “People are policy, so that part is really exciting.”
“It does make a difference when women are at the leadership table,” said Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), the newly elected Democratic Assistant Speaker in the U.S. House of Representatives., who celebrates the historic election of Harris. “The priorities change. So much of what we need is diversity of gender, race, ethnicity and geography, because those different life experiences and perspectives develop an agenda that really puts racial, gender and economic justice at the center.”
“Meaningful policy change is much more possible when people with diverse viewpoints come to the table,” said Latifa Lyles, executive director of TIME’S UP. “We have a unique opportunity to move forward right now because of an unprecedented number of diverse voices at the table.”
Current Moment Is an Opportunity
The combination of Trump’s rollbacks of women’s rights, the COVID pandemic and the resultant economic collapse has created a perfect storm—a care crisis—that is producing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the very structures of society, said Rep. Clark. She says that economic recovery hinges on restructuring the economy to address the care crisis and gaping inequalities.
“The pandemic exposed all the frailties of our systems,” Rep. Clark told Ms. “We all want to have the health of the nation restored, but we aren’t going to get there if we don’t make these investments in childcare. Paid sick leave, racial justice, reproductive rights—all are pieces of rebuilding a stronger economy. It was brewing just beneath the surface but now we just simply cannot turn a blind eye to it if we are serious about an economic recovery for this country.”
Clark believes that Biden’s care agenda will bring about a “care revolution” that is long overdue.
Marielina Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Project, believes that Biden and Harris will bring a more informed and compassionate approach to immigration.
“President-Elect Biden and Vice-President Harris herself share a vision of America that is a pro-immigrant vision,” said Hincapie. “For the first time in recent history, they’ll be taking a much more regional approach to migration and a Western Hemisphere approach and looking at and addressing root causes of migration, like femicide and gender-based violence.”
On reproductive rights, senior federal policy counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights Katherine Gillespie is hopeful. “I’m extremely optimistic that the Biden Harris administration will expand reproductive rights in the future working closely with the United States Congress. I think the new Congress is going to be more ready than ever to work on these issues.”
Under threat that the conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court will overturn or entirely gut Roe v. Wade, Gillespie anticipates that Congress will pass the Women’s Health Protection Act that would codify abortion rights and ban medically unnecessary restrictions.
Restoring the Federal Government’s Civil Rights Infrastructure
Biden and Harris will restore the civil rights infrastructure that was utterly devastated during the Trump administration. Trump appointed agency heads with no civil rights backgrounds and who did not believe in the missions of the agencies they led. In addition to slashing budgets and purging veteran civil servants, the Trump administration redirected civil rights enforcement away from race and sex discrimination and toward exempting religious people and organizations from civil rights laws.
“Biden’s campaign promised that civil rights enforcement offices across federal government will be back in business,” said Lhamon. “Just that in itself is an incredible opportunity. If our federal civil rights agencies can hire people so that they are staffed up. Congress has been funding them but the Trump administration just chose not to use that funding.
“One of the things that was shocking to me about the Trump administration was the many, many, many ways that civil rights entities did not conform to the law,” explains Lhamon. “They didn’t follow binding precedent from the Supreme Court and from lower courts because it wasn’t in their interest. So coming back to actually following the law will be a hugely important step forward.”
Sunu Chandy, legal director of the National Women’s Law Center, is looking forward to an administration that will protect employee rights.
“The Trump administration has gone out of its way to support the side of management against workers when it comes to labor and employment rights, the side of employers against employees and the side of those who wish to bring religious objections when they are in conflict with reproductive rights or LGBTQ rights,” said Chandy.
“A Renaissance in Public Education”
President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten applauds the Biden-Harris administration for its support public education and teachers.
“Under Joe Biden’s leadership, we could have a renaissance in public education and a resurgence of union organizing that will create shared prosperity in America that hugely helps deal with the polarization, the division, the racism, and the inequality that Trump has so diabolically and effectively stoked,” Weingarten told Ms. “Biden has to show people that government can work for them.”
To do that, Weingarten said, “We have to broaden opportunity, keep on growing the economy, but then also make sure it’s a whole lot fairer than it is right now. The union movement and public education are two of the key vehicles to do those things.”
Culture Change and Setting a New Tone
The last four years has been marked by racism, misogyny and division. President Biden and Vice President Harris promise to usher in cultural change to heal and rebuild American civil society.
“The Biden administration has so much power to set the tone for our country,” Chandy told Ms. “You can’t underestimate the importance of culture change. For the last four years we’ve had support given to division, bias and hatred in many, many ways. Whether it’s about immigrant rights, disability rights, women’s rights LGBT rights, minority faith communities, this is a country for all of us. The work really flows from that.”
“A new generation of leaders will change our culture in the long run, which the previous administration has made so obvious that we desperately need,” said TIME’S UP Latifa Lyles. “At this history-making moment, we are hopeful. The pervasiveness of sexism in our political and public discourse has had lots of detrimental effects and infected how we think about government, but we also think that there’s an opportunity now not just in the government, but across sectors to change that narrative and to start to rebuild and to heal from the damage that has been done both in our culture in terms of what has gone unchecked, and also in our everyday lives whether it’s at home or at work.
“Has an administration ever had a moment like this to try to make a strong and unprecedented statement about the pervasiveness of gender and racial discrimination and what we can do together to break down those barriers?” said Lyles. “That goes to very specific activities and the various agencies and enforcement, but it also goes to leadership and what this administration can show as far as representation.”
The Long Fight Ahead
Undoing the damage done by the Trump administration and “building back better” will require all of us to stay focused and work hard. Gillespie and Lyles urge feminists to stay engaged and push the Biden Harris administration to carry through with the promises in their platform for women’s rights.
“The best thing that members of the public can do is work through their congressional representatives to support legislation. Members need to hear from their constituents what is really important to them,” said Gillespie. “There’s an immense amount of power in our votes, and I think that people as constituents need to let their members of Congress know what’s important to them.”
“We want to make sure that we’re continuing to work constantly to make sure the issues we care about get addressed and that folks continue to work on the protections we care about,” Lyles told Ms. “We are hopeful that we can do more than we ever have, but it is still going to take folks engaging and continuing to urge their elected officials right now about what is important to them.”
This article originally appears in the Winter 2021 issue of Ms. Become a member today to read the entire issue—through our app and in print.