03.11.09

Is Valerie Jarrett Anti-Woman?

President Obama’s choice to lead the newly created White House Council on Women and Girls has done virtually nothing to advance women’s rights. We should support her anyway.

Today President Obama signed an executive order creating a White House Council on Women and Girls. The president’s council will have as its mandate: “To provide a coordinated federal response to the challenges confronted by women and girls to ensure that all Cabinet and Cabinet-level agencies consider how their policies and programs impact women and families.” Women should be cheering, right? Not so fast. Why are so many feminists up in arms about the choice of Valerie Jarrett to chair the council?

One comment on our blog read: My concern with Valerie Jarrett is that I don’t think she has been “kicked to the curb” enough.

For many women, even the mention of Valerie Jarrett is feminist dynamite. Jarrett was among President Obama’s inner circle during the 2008 presidential campaign—a campaign which took down two promising female candidates along the way. Forgive and forget? Not for many women on both sides of the aisle. Somehow this pick by President Obama has stepped smack dab into the middle of one of the most argued notions of the current women’s rights movement: Can a woman who does not support other women be a feminist?

I wrote a piece for The New Agenda blog last night after seeing my email inbox fill with angry protests about President Obama’s selection of Jarrett. The grounds for their dismay were many, and the comments are raw and telling. First and foremost was the notion that Jarrett is perceived to be a major villain in the plot to bring down then Senator Hillary Clinton and Governor Sarah Palin: Did Jarrett stand up when Obama was using sexism, when the Democratic party was and the media was throwing mud and spitting in our faces? No she did not. Second, feminists ask: Where’s the beef? Show me something, I mean anything, on Jarrett’s resume that demonstrates the vaguest commitment to women’s rights: I’ve been trying to find the answer to this question myself. Can anyone point to any work Jarrett has done to advance women’s equality?Third, Jarrett is still linked to the Chicago-style scandals that plague politicians from that city (some rightfully and some wrongfully): She does have her detractors, and is a highly or lowly regarded slum landlady from Chicago. And finally, women feel that Jarrett is not in touch with our needs. One comment on our blog read: My concern with Valerie Jarrett is that I don’t think she has been “kicked to the curb” enough to understand the depth and breadth of the problems that women in this country face.

While I see the merit of these concerns, I have to say I respectfully disagree. I believe we should set aside our differences and cheer President Obama for establishing a White House Women’s Council and for his pick of Valerie Jarrett. This is one of the things we have been asking for, isn’t it?

Valerie Jarrett is another fresh face for our country’s women’s movement, which so sorely needs a makeover. As I wrote on this blog in January, the current women's rights movement is hardly recognizable to those who are trying to advance the discourse on gender. The women’s movement has devolved from brave and bold to an exclusive clique. Valerie Jarrett is a leader who can change that. Jarrett is self-made woman who has a lifetime of accomplishments.Jarrett is a woman who can garner support in a nonpartisan fashion.

We need a pragmatic woman who has demonstrated that she can get things done. Our country is littered with crises that affect women disproportionately and that have not had national leadership. Take, for example, violence against women—so-called domestic violence—which impacts one in four women and one in three female teenagers. Or the flat funding for the prevention of HIV/AIDS—a disease that is the leading cause of death for women of color between the ages of 25-34, and the fifth leading killer of women in America. Or the fact that women still make only 78 cents on the dollar compared to men.

I say to all feminists of all stripes, let’s stand with Valerie Jarrett. Let’s unite and focus on women’s issues that unite us rather than divide us.

Amy Siskind is president and co-founder of The New Agenda, a nonpartisan organization devoted to advancing women’s rights.