Obama: A 21st Century Feminist

In an essay published in Glamour Magazine two weeks ago, President Obama wrote a piece being heralded by some as his most extensive and personal comments yet on the subject of women’s rights.


So it’s somewhat surprising that he begins the piece with a political cliché. After touting the many achievements made by women over the last eight years, “from Hollywood to the Supreme Court,” President Obama pivots to a sentence torn straight out of any number of stump speeches offered at last month's Democratic National Convention:

“There’s still a lot of work to do,” the president says.

By the time he starts rattling off policy prescriptions (“from equal pay for equal work” to “protecting reproductive rights”) your eyes may begin to glaze — is our soon-to-be lame-duck president lecturing us, in the pages of a women’s magazine, about the policies we’ve failed to see fully realized under his watch?

But then, of course, this is our Communicator-in-Chief we’re talking about; Obama knows better than to waste his “Glamour” moment regurgitating a mere policy paper:

“I’ll keep working on good policies,” he writes. “But there are some changes that have nothing to do with passing new laws. In fact, the most important change may be the toughest of all — and that’s changing ourselves.”

Obama uses the rest of his 1,500-word essay to communicate a wide-angle-lens brand of feminism that we haven’t heard from the president before. It’s a perspective that recognizes, rightly, that nobody is immune to the pervasive and insidious effects of a sexist society; that the same cultural forces that conspire to keep glass ceilings in place and paychecks unequal for women are the same that malign men for crying in public or for choosing to forgo careers in order to raise families; that, regardless of the laws we pass or the policies we propose, change won’t come until we’re willing to challenge the patriarchal underpinnings of our culture.

This won’t come as news to many LGBTQ people; queer parents, in particular, understand that sexism is inseparably linked to a variety of other societal ills that plague our communities. Of course, homophobia is at play whenever two gay fathers are questioned about their ability to adequately “nurture” their children.

And yes, transphobia is the main culprit when a trans dad is widely ridiculed and sensationalized for wanting to carry and breastfeed his own child. But sexism is rampant in these experiences, too; it is our sexist society that deems child-rearing the exclusive domain of the feminine and heterosexual.

In a uniquely unpolitical way, Obama is challenging us to recognize these sexist currants in our society and the negative impact they have on us all. He even recognizes the negative impact gender norms have had on his own upbringing, admitting he often felt pressure to be “tough” and act “cool” as a young man.

It’s almost laughable that the basketball-playingAl Green-crooning leader of the free world is suggesting he ever struggled with traditional notions of masculinity. But that is also precisely the point: sexism certainly doesn't affect everyone equally, but it nonetheless has a corrosive effect on everyone.

That, after all, is “what twenty-first-century feminism is about,” our president concludes. “The idea that when everybody is equal, we are all more free.”

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