Dear President Obama, I voted for you as a citizen, not a daughter, wife, or mother

I’ll have a longer post on the State of the Union speech later, but for now, here’s one nitpick. In making a plug for the Violence Against Women Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act, President Obama said:

“We know our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace and free from the fear of domestic violence.”

Like Melissa–and many other feminists I saw on Twitter–I really, really hate this framing. (And he used it more than once last night.) As I’ve written before, I think it is counter-productive and offensive to continually ask men to imagine a female relation when calling on them to support women’s basic rights.

More to the point in this case, last time I checked the State of Union, while delivered to Congress, is a message to whole nation. I mean, I know women only make up 20 percent of Congress, but President Obama is surely aware that we make up half of the population. (After all, he was elected thanks to women–mainly single women, I might add.) So it indefensible, and frankly weird, that he so often “appears to be talking to The Men of America about Their Women.”

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Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • Lindsey

    I’m glad you pointed this out. I think the other thing that feels off to me is that he is making strong comments (whether he intends to or not – he may have meant the country’s wives, mothers, and daughters?) about what women we should be most invested in protecting – namely wives and mothers (and perhaps daughters who could one day fulfill those roles, but I know that is a bit of a leap).

    Also, in addition to calling on men to think about a female relation, he is also perpetuating the idea for women that they do not have their own identity separate from the responsibilities and obligations of their social roles. For me it brings up the idea of being “wives and mothers first” and not being reinforced to forge a part of your identity separate from other people or take care of your own needs if it means taking time away from satisfying the needs of others.

  • Richard Rahl

    With all due respect, this article makes a poor-quality argument. The article laments President Obama talking to men instead of to women about passing the Violence Against Women Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act. Did you know that when the Violence Against Women Act passed the Senate, the only people to vote against it were men, 22 Republican men.

    His comments were not some philosophical pontification on the relative merits of equality: it was a persuasive appeal specifically targeted to people opposing the legislation or are on the fence. Since I don’t know of too many women opposed to passing the Violence Against Women Act, speaking specifically to man was the only intellectual and moral thing to do.

    • rhian

      No, he does it essentially every time he talks about women.

      “Our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.” (inauguration)

      I find it really jarring to listen to, as though suddenly the speech is directed at someone else. And it is bizarre to me that the reason I should get equal pay is not that I deserve it, but that some dude decided that being nice to his mom would make the economy stronger.

      • Matthew T. Jameson

        That was the part that was off-putting to me, too. He several times used second-person plurals (we/our) in reference to men, as though “we” are men and “they” are women. It’s nice to be in the president’s in-group, but I’d rather it not be limited to 48 percent of the population or whatever men constitute.

    • Larry Motuz

      I agree with you. The context is ‘whom’ he is trying to persuade…in this case, an entirely male ‘opposition’ who stood steadfast against renewing the Act for reasons having more to do with biases against immigrants, gays, and native women, albeit many also have biases against women and their freedoms/civil liberties.

    • John

      One thing I think people miss is that society has a skewed view if what masculinity is and what it means to be a man. Society often teaches men that they NEED to be self reliant. Don’t ask for help. Suck it up. If you need help, you’re not a man. Men must be strong. If someone can abuse you, you’re not a man. Society (mainly other men) are reluctant to assist or support men. He panders to this view.

      I won’t say the laws are entirely gender neutral. I won’t say that men need the laws at the same scale that women do, but certainly aspects of the law and I would say the main thrust of each law would benefit men as well. Until society’s view of masculinity evolves, this narrative will not sell.

      It sometimes comes down to do you want the bill to pass or do you want to make a statement on gender equality.

  • Steve

    Women make up the majority of the US population.

  • John

    Every woman has had a mother. Many women have or will have daughters. Now there are some women who can have wives. Maybe he was talking to everyone. If you’re going to assume he was only talking to men, you could also make an argument that he is also re-enforcing the woman as victim / man as perpetrator stereotype.

    • jenni

      But the point is that by phrasing it the way he does it sounds as if the reason women are important is because they are somebody loves them. It does not matter that somebody can also be a woman. Of course women can also have mothers, daughters and wives but the reason those mothers, daughters and wives should have equal pay is not because they are mothers, daughters and wives but because they are citizens.

  • dudley

    I understand the frustration with the appeal. Obama is using a rhetorical device that undermines female autonomy as a citizen.

    Although it is impossible to empirically ascertain the negative or positive effects of this sort address, I am left wondering if it is more effective as a persuasive tool than the other ways to address the issue. If, in the short term, his phraseology here motivated the greatest number of people to support the issue at hand (i.e. if this sort of appeal was most effective at changing congressional republican votes), is it worth the cost in that he supports gender role binary?