Sunday, January 31, 2021

Gender Equality Back on the Agenda: the White House Gender Policy Council

Linda McClain


In a steady stream of executive orders and policy proposals, President Biden has taken steps to undo some of the damage done by the Trump Administration and to declare the values and priorities of the new Biden/Harris Administration. Fortunately, gender equality is among those priorities. On January 19, the day before their inauguration, President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris announced the creation of a White House Gender Policy Council, co-chaired by Jennifer Klein, chief strategy and policy officer of TIME’s UP, and Julissa Reynosa, incoming assistant to President Biden and chief of staff to Dr. Jill Biden (and who also served in the Obama Administration). The Council is, in effect, a reboot of the White House Council on Women and Girls, created by the Obama-Biden administration in March 2009 but  disbanded by the Trump Administration in 2017.  In announcing the Gender Policy Council, President-elect Biden stated: “The work of this Council is going to be critical to ensuring we build our nation back better by getting closer to equality for women and to the full inclusion of women in our economy and our society.” The Council’s purpose, he announced, would be to help guide and coordinate government policy that impacts women and girls across a wide range of issues, including economic security, health care, racial justice, and gender-based violence. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris elaborated: “All Americans deserve a fair shot to get ahead, including women whose voices have not always been heard.” She declared her eagerness to work with the Council “to address the challenges facing women and girls, and build a nation that is more equal and just.” The establishment of the Gender Policy Council is a vital step after the Trump Administration’s unrelenting hostility to gender equality and to women’s rights. Significantly, the Council seems likely to approach gender equality and the category “women” in an inclusive and intersectional way, attentive to problems of equity and racial justice. The Council appears to be one critical part of the Biden/Harris Administration’s broader “equity agenda,” evident in executive orders on advancing racial equity, equity for other “underserved communities,” and LGBTQ+ rights. As this new Council begins its work, it is worth considering some parallels to the earlier White House Council on Women and Girls as well as some differences.

When President Obama announced the creation of the Council, he declared that its purpose was to ensure “that American women and girls are treated fairly in all matters of public policy” and that all federal agencies “take into account the particular needs and concerns of women and girls.” As I observed in an earlier article in Michigan State Law Review, “President Obama linked signing the order not only to his role as President, but also to his experience ‘as a son, a grandson, a husband, and a father’; seeing his grandmother’s experience hitting a glass ceiling in banking; seeing ‘Michelle, the rock of the Obama family[,] . . juggling work and parenting with more skill and grace than anybody that I know’; and seeing his mother’s own struggle to raise him on her own.” President Obama connected such personal stories to the “broader story of women in this country—a story of both unyielding progress and also untapped potential.”

In announcing the Council, President Obama also reiterated a theme sounded in other areas of his domestic policy: the issues the Council’s would address “are not just women’s issues,” but also family and economic issues. Thus, workplace flexibility wasn’t “just a women’s issue,” and the absence of such flexibility showed the serious “disconnect between the needs of our families and the demands of our workplace.” The President and First Lady Michelle Obama both used their own family experience to support the call for flexibility and to elevate the importance of supporting caretaking.

Fast forward to 2021:  President Biden’s “agenda for women” echoes President Obama’s rhetoric in stating Biden’s belief that “every issue is a women’s issue—health care, the economy, education, national security;” he adds that “women are also uniquely and disproportionately impacted by many policies.”   Similarly, Obama Administration veteran Susan Rice, director of Biden’s Domestic Policy Council, has stated that “every issue is a woman’s issue.” Rice stated  that the Gender Policy Council and its “two qualified and tested co-chairs will be key in marshaling every part of our government and working directly with communities to ensure all women and girls are entitled to equal rights and opportunities.” Along those lines, Tina Tchen, former executive director of the Obama Administration’s White House Council on Women and Girls (and now CEO of TIME’S UP), explains that it is “significant” that, structurally, the White House Council on Gender Policy will be at “a level commensurate” with the Domestic Policy Councils and the other policy councils – the National Economic Council and the National Security Council. Vice President Harris has further indicated that the Administration’s effort to “pursue a comprehensive plan to open up opportunity and uphold the rights of women” will include not only women in the U.S., but also “around the world.”

Just as President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama both offered personal narratives in support of the need for the White House Council on Girls and Women, President Biden and Vice President Harris have drawn on personal stories to give force to the political imperative for gender equity and equality. Vice President Harris, whose inauguration has already shattered barriers, has spoken of her own intersectional identity and how that shapes her commitments to equity and equality.

One difference from the Obama-era White House Council on Women and Girls is the more explicitly intersectional framing of the Gender Policy Council. Both President Biden and Vice President Harris have shown awareness of the need for training (as gender economist Katica Roy puts it) an “intersectional gender lens” on problems and policies. The pandemic is one example. In pledging to build back better, they spoke repeatedly of the disproportionate toll that the COVID-19 pandemic had taken not only on women, but specifically on women of color. Their “American Rescue Plan” is attentive to the pandemic’s disproportionate burdens on communities and families of color. It recognizes that “African-American and Latina women” have “borne the brunt of the pandemic” and the economic crisis, and are “overrepresented among long-term care workers.”  Like the Obama Administration, the Biden-Harris plan recognizes the critical role of caretaking (both paid child and elder care and parental care). It identifies the gender and race dimensions of who is providing such care and how the child care crisis has led to a disproportionate number of women leaving the paid workforce. As Naomi Cahn and I argue in a forthcoming article in Georgetown Journal of Gender & the Law, a just recovery plan (what we call a “feminist recovery plan”) should include building a care infrastructure that will increase access, affordability, and quality – and address the intersecting inequities of the current system. This is the type of policy initiative that the Council can ably guide.

Finally, another difference with possible normative and policy significance is the naming of the new council as the Gender Policy Council. Certainly, the public statements by President and Vice President Harris about the Council’s role in the Administration reveal an animating concern to advance equality and full inclusion for women and girls. That is a laudable and necessary commitment. At the same time, “gender policy” may also encompass a broader range of issues, such as the Administration’s commitment to combating discrimination based ongender identity and sexual orientation, understood as forms of “sex discrimination” (in light of Bostock v. Clayton County (2020)). Also under the rubric of “gender policy,” I would propose, should be initiatives to understand how misogyny and white supremacy play a part in conceptions of masculinity that fuel domestic extremism of the type that led to the insurrection on January 6th. Further, as the Biden-Harris Administration moves forward with implementing its commitment to “an ambitious whole-of-government equity agenda,” it provides a vital opportunity to address important questions about the relationship between equity and equality and how best to pursue commitments like equal opportunity.       

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