“Madam Speaker. Madam Vice President”: Feminists React to Biden’s Historic Joint Address

“Madam Speaker. Madam Vice-President,” President Joe Biden said, greeting Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at his first address to a joint session of Congress. “No president has ever said those words, and it’s about time.”

Before he even began his prepared speech, Biden’s joint address on Wednesday, Apr. 28, was already one for the books. Never in history had two women shared the dais with the president, and feminists—both inside the chamber and out—did not hide their excitement.

“It is yet another message to our country that this is a diverse country, and women leaders are welcome,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).

“Being able to see the first woman Speaker of the House and the first woman, first Black American, and first South Asian American Vice President sitting behind the president is nothing short of HERstoric. … Women, especially Black women, have made groundbreaking strides over the past couple of years. The soul and moral compass of our nation rests on the shoulders of women.”

—Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D), the only Black Congress member representing Michigan.

“I am extremely excited that all of America’s daughters—and our sons—will be able to see two strong, powerful women, including a Black woman, occupying the dais with the president,” Rep. Val Demings (D–Fla.) said. “When a child sees something for the first time, it becomes achievable in their mind. We should not discount how powerful this moment will be.”

Biden Makes the Case for the American Families Plan

Biden’s address was optimistic and solution-oriented, with a heavy emphasis on the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan, both of which are crucial to an equitable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Now—after just 100 days—I can report to the nation: America is on the move again. Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setback into strength,” Biden said. “We have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works—and can deliver for the people.”

And the American Families Plan, a $1.8 trillion initiative announced on Wednesday, Apr. 28, certainly delivers. It would establish two years of free pre-school for 3- and 4-year-old children, increasing their likelihood of graduating high school and attending college. Better yet, if they choose to study at a community college, two years will be fully government-funded.

“Jill is a community college professor who teaches today as first lady. She has long said any country that out-educates us is going to outcompete us—and she’ll be leading this effort,” said Biden.

The American Families Plan also subsidizes child care, capping the cost at 7 percent of a family’s income for children under age five. And if workers need to take time off to care for loved ones, the American Families Plan also would provide up to three months of paid family and medical leave.

Lastly, a much-anticipated expansion of the child tax credit will supply up to $3,000 for each child over the age of six, and $3,600 for those five and under. The plan will have a drastic positive impact for all Americans, but especially women and mothers.

“The pandemic has cast a light on the harsh reality that many women, especially women of color, are essential workers who make low wages and cannot afford to pay for child care or elder care. If they cannot continue in the workforce, they cannot even adequately feed their families. To say this is an impossible choice is an understatement. …

This is an investment in people, especially women, in education, nutrition, healthcare, and a dramatic reduction in poverty. We celebrate this visionary plan and look forward to its introduction in Congress. The Feminist Majority Foundation not only endorses this plan but will work tirelessly to help make it possible.”

—Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF)

“The American Families Plan is a necessary down payment and an essential step towards building safer, more equitable workplaces. These kinds of investments in a care economy are direct investments in women, who continue to bear the brunt of the caregiving and economic crises. Because caregiving, without a doubt, IS infrastructure.”

Tina Tchen, president and CEO of TIME’S UP Now

Biden Address Sidesteps Mentions of ERA and Abortion

Biden’s being flanked by two women who represent second and third in command of the nation was historic—but as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said, “It will mean even more when we finally have a woman president addressing Congress.”

And although he spent over an hour celebrating the worthy hopes and achievements of his administration—including the Paycheck Fairness Act, care work funding, and reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)—Biden made no mention of abortion or reproductive health and freedom, despite having recently rescinded the Trump-era domestic gag rule, which banned Title X funding for clinics that offered or discussed abortion.

Same goes for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a key piece of legislation that went entirely unaddressed, despite being passed by the House on the same day as the VAWA.


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Biden Address Infused Equity Into Policy Initiatives

Another central focus was the American Jobs Plan, and its intersection with environmentalist policy. “Think about it, there is simply no reason that the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing,” Biden said.

The underlying theme of each proposed initiative? Equity. Biden stressed: “It’s time for corporate America and the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans to pay their fair share.” If he succeeds, the federal tax revenue from large corporations and billionaires would be put to good use lifting up vulnerable Americans, which are disproportionately people of color.

Biden Calls for Congressional Action on Racial and Gender Justice

Harkening back to his speech on Tuesday, Apr. 20, following the verdict on Derek Chauvin’s murder trial, he also called on Congress to pursue true justice by way of police reform and equity in housing, education and health.

“My fellow Americans, we have to come together. To rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve. To root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system. And to enact police reform in George Floyd’s name that passed the House already.”

And in a show of unprecedented solidarity from a U.S. president, Biden directly addressed transgender Americans, especially children and teens, many of whom are under attack by state legislators hoping to bar them from sports and revoke their gender-affirming health care.

“I also hope Congress can get to my desk the Equality Act to protect the rights of LGBTQ Americans. To all the transgender Americans watching at home – especially the young people who are so brave—I want you to know that your president has your back.”

The declaration of support struck a chord with LGBTQ+ Americans, who have long advocated for the Equality Act to guarantee their protection in all 50 states.

“We Need to Protect the Sacred Right to Vote”

Biden’s final call to action? “If we are to truly restore the soul of America—we need to protect the sacred right to vote.”

Directly addressing the legitimacy of our democracy as it stands, he called on Congress to pass H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act (H.R. 4), and condemned those who launched attacks on the high voter turnout achieved in November 2020.

“Can our democracy deliver on its promise that all of us—created equal in the image of God – have a chance to lead lives of dignity, respect, and possibility? Can our democracy deliver on the most pressing needs of our people? Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart? America’s adversaries—the autocrats of the world—are betting it can’t. …

We have to prove them wrong. We have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works – and can deliver for the people. In our first 100 Days together, we have acted to restore the people’s faith in our democracy to deliver.”

There is plenty of work to be done, and on several fronts: racial justice, gender equity, LGBTQ+ inclusion, voting rights, reproductive freedom—the list goes on. But the address sparked hope in many for an administration driven by compassion, instead of competition.

“It’s never been a good bet to bet against America,” Biden concluded. There is “nothing we can’t do, if we do it together.”

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About

Sophie Dorf-Kamienny—an incoming freshman at Tufts University—is a Ms. fellow and former editorial intern. You can find her on Twitter at @Sophie_DK_.