President Obama

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–President Obama kicked off Women’s History Month with a move that pleased women’s rights advocates: On March 2, he named Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a pro-choice Democrat, to serve as head of the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees women’s health issues.

But his efforts on behalf of women didn’t stop at the beginning of the month.

Since then, he has created a new executive council for women and girls. Members of the White House Council on Women and Girls include all Cabinet heads as well as other key administration officials. It is chaired by Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to the president.

“The purpose of this council is to ensure that American women and girls are treated fairly in all matters of public policy,” President Obama said in a statement.

Obama also signed legislation this month that lowers the cost of contraceptives at clinics serving low-income and college women and restores U.S. funding to the United Nations Population Fund, which offers family planning services around the world. Funding for the program had been suspended under President Bush since 2002.

The March news may assuage some women’s rights advocates, who had complained earlier that–despite his appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state–he had not made equal representation for women a goal of his government.

7 Women in Cabinet-Level Posts

Women comprise less than a third of Obama’s Cabinet, named to 4 of the 15 slots. In addition to Clinton at the State Department, former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano now oversees the Homeland Security Department and former Rep. Hilda Solis heads up the Department of Labor. Sebelius has yet to win Senate confirmation to her assigned post.

Women hold three more Cabinet-level positions: Christina Romer chairs the Council of Economic Advisers, Lisa Jackson is chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Susan Rice serves as ambassador to the United Nations.

Overall, women were named to seven of the 21 Cabinet-level posts, fewer than some women’s rights advocates had hoped for, given the role women played in the November election.

On Election Day, 56 percent of women cast their ballots for Obama versus 49 percent of men, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, in New Brunswick.

Some women’s rights groups took special offense when Obama asked Larry Summers to chair the National Economic Council, which advises the president on economic issues. The former president of Harvard University, Summers resigned in 2006 after suggesting that women were not as successful in math and science as men because of innate differences between the sexes.

Clinton Increased Women’s Ranks

Obama did not break new ground in gender diversity in his Cabinet. Both Presidents Bush and Clinton named four women to their Cabinets in 2001 and 1993. Obama’s Cabinet also includes four African Americans, three Latinos and two Asians.

Advocates had hoped Obama would name more women to high-level positions, but they lacked the cash to make a major push for equality.

In previous years, the National Council of Women’s Organizations and the National Women’s Political Caucus–both based in Washington, D.C.–launched the Women’s Appointments Project, a public relations campaign to pressure incoming presidents to put women in executive posts.

But funding failed to materialize in time to press the Obama administration for greater gender equity.

The project was first launched after the resignation of Richard Nixon, whose 31 Cabinet members were all male, according to a history gathered by the two groups that oversee the project.

Clinton set the standing record, tapping 10 women to Cabinet-level positions during two terms in office. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Attorney General Janet Reno held two of what are regarded as the Cabinet’s four most important posts: the department heads of State, Justice, Defense and Treasury.

President George W. Bush asked eight women to serve in his Cabinet, including Condoleezza Rice, the first African American woman to serve as secretary of state.

Clinton also holds the record for lower-level appointments, naming women to 27 percent of positions confirmed by the Senate. Data for President Bush were not available.

Strong Start for Women’s Issues

Overall, women’s rights groups are pleased with Obama’s performance and cite as evidence of his commitment to improving the lives of women the first bill he signed into law: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, reversing a Supreme Court decision that made it harder for women to sue for wage bias.

Since then, he has reversed the so-called global gag rule, banning foreign aid for international groups that provide abortions or abortion counseling; moved to rescind another executive order giving health care providers permission to refuse to provide abortion, birth control or other services because of religious objections; and signed legislation that will reduce the cost of contraceptives at family planning clinics serving college and low-income women.

In January, Obama drew fire for backing a move to kill funding from the stimulus package that would have expanded Medicaid family planning programs to low-income women. But he offered an olive branch to reproductive health advocates in February when he submitted a fiscal 2010 budget that includes funding to expand such programs.

Obama’s move on March 11 creating the White House Council on Women and Girls won raves from advocates in women’s rights groups ranging from Planned Parenthood Federation of America to Business and Professional Women USA to the American Association of University Women. The council’s task is to streamline the administration’s initiatives of special concern to women and girls.

“President Obama began demonstrating his commitment to women and families on the campaign trail and is making good in his administration,” said Diane Polangin, president of the Washington-based Business and Professional Women USA, in a statement. “There is still much to do and this council could play an important role for the federal response to the challenges that women and girls face today.”

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief for Women’s eNews.

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For more information:

National Council of Women’s Organizations

National Women’s Political Caucus

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