He said his own feminism was shaped by the incredible women in his life.
This week President Obama penned a feminist essay for Glamour magazine. The 1,500 word essay will be available in print this September but is currently available on the website. Whatever your personal politics may be regarding the progressive albeit sometimes flawed administration, much like his push for LGTBQIA equality it is a first and something to be celebrated.
Written not just as the POTUS, but also the father of two young women, it is the first time a man in his position has loudly proclaimed the position of feminist and spoken extensively and quite personally about it.
“As far as we’ve come, all too often we are still boxed in by stereotypes about how men and women should behave. One of my heroines is Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, who was the first African American to run for a major party’s presidential nomination. She once said, “The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, ‘It’s a girl.’ ” We know that these stereotypes affect how girls see themselves starting at a very young age, making them feel that if they don’t look or act a certain way, they are somehow less worthy.”
Obama explains that his own feminism was shaped by the women around him, citing women as having played the most important roles in his life.
From his single working mother, to his grandmother who took on quite a bit of the child-rearing to balance work schedules to his own wife who has taken on a disproportionate amount of child-rearing while her husband pursued a political career, down to his own daughters, Obama has been surrounded by strong women all of his life and shows a level of respect for them that most other presidents have not.
“’I’d like to think that I’ve been pretty aware of the unique challenges women face—it’s what has shaped my own feminism. But I also have to admit that when you’re the father of two daughters, you become even more aware of how gender stereotypes pervade our society. You see the subtle and not-so-subtle social cues transmitted through culture. You feel the enormous pressure girls are under to look and behave and even think a certain way.”
In this essay, Obama speaks of how society taught him what a cool guy looks like and how a tough guy is supposed to behave, but that it never felt natural. Having been raised without a father, he looked to the world around him for social cues that he could not receive at home. Instead, he was surrounded by women defying gender roles and expectations, yet finding themselves inhibited by the glass ceiling of their work environments and society’s expectations. He continues:
“We need to break through these limitations. We need to keep changing the attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive, that criticizes our daughters for speaking out and our sons for shedding a tear. We need to keep changing the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality and rewards men for theirs.
We need to keep changing the attitude that permits the routine harassment of women, whether they’re walking down the street or daring to go online. We need to keep changing the attitude that teaches men to feel threatened by the presence and success of women.
We need to keep changing the attitude that congratulates men for changing a diaper, stigmatizes full-time dads, and penalizes working mothers. We need to keep changing the attitude that values being confident, competitive, and ambitious in the workplace—unless you’re a woman. Then you’re being too bossy, and suddenly the very qualities you thought were necessary for success end up holding you back.
We need to keep changing a culture that shines a particularly unforgiving light on women and girls of color. Michelle has often spoken about this. Even after achieving success in her own right, she still held doubts; she had to worry about whether she looked the right way or was acting the right way—whether she was being too assertive or too “angry.””
President Obama explains that it is men’s responsibility to fight sexism, as well, that partners of women need to be deliberate about creating “truly equal” relationships. He explains that the burden cannot simply fall on women’s emotional labor, but that men (and masculine folks) must step up, as well.
“That’s what twenty-first century feminism is about: the idea that when everybody is equal, we are all more free.”
This is the first time that a President has shown a deeper, complex understanding and care for feminist issues and sets the bar higher for whomever takes the seat next. It’s not perfect, but it’s historic. Let’s celebrate it as such.