At first blush, the Obama administration's effort to focus on women sounds, well, fresh and exciting. Go to the White House website and you'll see that "women" are right there on the agenda along with the economy, taxes, and Iraq. That gives me a little pause as I wonder if gender-specific concerns are really as pressing as, say, the tanking stock market or ballooning unemployment. But then I heard about Obama's latest initiative, which was announced to me in an E-mail I received Wednesday from Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families.
"Today is your day. President Obama just created the first-ever White House Council on Women and Girls, and I was honored to attend the ceremony."
Maria Shriver told the Associated Press that the formation of the council was a reminder that "we are now what I like to call 'a woman's nation.' " Other women's rights activists said the decision comes at a "critical time." Some, though, were disappointed that Obama chose not to make this a cabinet-level position.
Regardless, the new council has some valuable missions. Among them is preventing violence against women—something we all agree needs to be addressed, as underscored by the Rihanna-Chris Brown affair. The council also will focus on women's health issues, including funding the development of microbicides to protect women against HIV transmission, research on more reliable ways to detect ovarian cancer early, and protecting pregnant women from mercury exposure. Also on the agenda: promoting a woman's right to choose, equal pay, and health research to erase gender disparities.
That's all well and good, but I'm wondering whether this council is really "new." Turns out, it's not. Bill Clinton established a White House Office for Women's Initiatives and Outreach whose staff "reviewed legislation and administration proposals to gauge their impact on women," according to a 2001 Washington Post article. Specifically, it addressed such issues as domestic violence, equal pay, abortion, and participation of women in clinical trials. Sound familiar? The article was written to announce George W. Bush's decision to shutter the office soon after he took office, much to the dismay of women's rights advocates. Once again, I'm thinking this "new" Obama initiative is simply an untying of shoelaces tied up by Bush—something I explain in a previous blog post on the health summit.