It’s Not Just Women’s Work

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It’s been a busy day at the White House. In addition to signing the omnibus bill and giving into the earmark-obsessives (more on that later), Obama announced several new nominations and established a new White House office. Among the nominees is Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, who will head up the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The new drug czar’s confirmation can’t come quickly enough, with every day bringing horrific news from the drug war in Mexico. (Today’s ghastly headline: five severed heads found packaged in coolers with notes warning the killers’ drug rivals.)

As for the new White House office, Obama signed an executive order this afternoon that creates a White House Council on Women and Girls headed up by Valerie Jarrett. A similar office was established near the end of Bill Clinton’s first term, called the Office of Women’s Initiatives and Outreach. We’re still getting a sense of how the new Council will function inside the administration. But women’s advocates are hoping it will have a broader mandate and more heft than the Clinton version, which served mostly as a liaison for women’s groups who wanted to be heard within the White House and was seen by some critics as a way for the administration to “ghettoize” women’s issues.

There’s also, of course, the whole problem of even calling things like equal pay, maternity/paternity leave, child care, and public health “women’s issues.” Lisa Belkin has a smart discussion of why some of the items on the Council’s agenda won’t get far until they’re redefined simply as universal issues. 

Obama may have inadvertently gotten the Council off on the wrong foot with an offhand joke he made at the signing ceremony. The initial members of the Council include all the Cabinet secretaries and heads of Cabinet-level agencies, all of whom were invited to the event. “We have many of those Cabinet members here,” noted Obama during his remarks. “Some of the men showed up–we put them in the second row.”

Hardy-har. I know it’s just a joke, but come on. Are we seriously still acting like what happens to half the population is incidental to men? That it’s just nice of them to bother to show up? Put them in the front row. Give them something to do. Because as long as it’s optional for men to care about addressing child care policy and workplace issues, the political agenda will reflect that.