11.10.09

How Obama Sold Women Out

The heath-care abortion mess is just the latest example of how Barack Obama took women’s votes—then let the country’s majority constituency down.

We knew it would end eventually. Just like a Hollywood romance, great love affairs just don't seem to stand the test of time. As the Obama administration began, we were gleefully informed by a leading lady feminist that President Obama was Christmas and Hannukah and New Years all rolled into one when it came to women’s issues. Turns out, it's a bit more like April Fools.

For the millions of women who voted for Obama on his promise to protect their reproductive rights, this past weekend's whipsaw on abortion funding is just the latest example of a president who frankly could care less about women beyond their votes. Ladies, we were sold a political brand name that touted diversity. But we were delivered a president with a woman problem. Now it’s time to do something about it.

He appointed fewer women into his cabinet than President Bill Clinton. He surrounded himself with czars, more than 90% of whom are male. He appointed Larry Summers, of "girls are inferior in math and science" fame, to a key economic post. And he played basketball with men and men only.

Women's love affair with Obama started in 2007. Some loved the idea of him—while not questioning his ideas. So when some women leaders heard the candidate say things like "sweetie" or "you're likable enough," or saw Obama's speechwriter Jon Favreau groping the breast of a cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton on Facebook (no comment), these leaders ignored the signs of subtle misogyny. The National Organization for Women (under its former leader) endorsed its first all-male ticket. And NARAL endorsed Obama over Sen. Clinton, even though she had a proven track record on reproductive rights. In January 2009, Ms. Magazine’s cover featured a now-infamous image of Obama in a superman pose sporting a t-shirt that reads: This is What a Feminist Looks Like.

With these women leaders behind him, President Obama felt he could be himself. He appointed fewer women into his cabinet than President Bill Clinton. He surrounded himself with czars, more than 90% of whom are male. He appointed Larry Summers, of "girls are inferior in math and science" fame, to a key economic post. He played basketball, golfed and fished with men and men only. He had beers with Skip Gates, but ignored it when Rihanna was almost strangled to death. And so on.

The love affair started to fade with Obama's off-handed response during an MSNBC interview questioning his all-male outings: "I think this is bunk." That remark gave women a reason to take a closer look at the inner workings of Obama and his ideas. And just as Betty Friedan described the subtlety of sexism as "the problem that has no name," “bunk” revealed that the boys club was still alive and well at the White House.

Peter Beinart: Why Democrats Were Smart to Bail on Abortion

Dana Goldstein: How Abortion Splits the Reform Coalition

Paul Begala: Forget Bipartisanship
And then came the Stupak Amendment. There were signs that Obama was agnostic on choice, but this sealed the deal. Analyst Taylor Marsh sums it up most eloquently: "It was Pres. Obama who opened the door to sell us out when he decided to put the Hyde Amendment in the budget, something Bill Clinton never did. But Mr. Obama didn't stop there. During the stimulus fight, at the first sign of displeasure, our president personally asked that contraceptives be taken out. Now the president seems ready to finish the job, with Democrats in the House helping him do it."

But did women let this pass? Not this time. The sleeping giant—America’s majority constituency—is awakening. Note how few men are speaking out about the fact that a major issue for women was thrown under the bus to get a deal done: That women were not valued. It is the women leaders doing the talking and the typing.

Women's organization such as Emily's List, NOW, Planned Parenthood and The New Agenda spoke out—each with its own message and solutions—loud and clear. Women on Capitol Hill, led by vocal heroines like Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado and Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, built a coalition unwilling to sign a bill including the Stupak Amendment. Passionate women advocates such as Phyllis Chesler and Jane Hamsher among countless others penned their displeasure.

And it stuck. By midday Monday, the story line in the media had shifted from the public option to abortion funding. And just as women's love affair with Obama came careening to a end, the president noticed—and very publicly tried to distance himself from what went down over at Pelosi's house. In an act of pure politics, Obama chose to equivocate.

What lessons have we learned?

Lesson one—we need more women in leadership roles. Women's organizations need to drop partisanship and work together to get more women into public office for both parties. Sisters, we cannot count on either party to represent our interests; we can only count on ourselves. (And when our women leaders do, on occasion, get it wrong—as Speaker Pelosi did this past weekend—we need an ample bench of women politicians surrounding her, and strong advocacy groups to steer her right).

Lesson two—with this awakening, there will be a quest to get a woman into the White House in 2012. Find us a woman leader who might have her personal beliefs, but will agree to keep them as just that, and you might just have a deal!

Amy Siskind is the President and Co-Founder of The New Agenda, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls. Ms. Siskind has appeared on CNN, Fox, and PBS. Ms. Siskind also writes for HuffPo and MORE.