C. Nicole Mason

(WOMENSENEWS)–On April 29, President Barack Obama will mark his 100th day in office.

For women of color, it’s also the time to mark a new era of political visibility and prominence.

Since he took office, Obama has appointed or nominated eight women to his cabinet or other high-level leadership positions and more than 50 percent of these nominees have been women of color. This is not only more than any other U.S. president, it’s a watershed moment in the history of women of color in this country.

Hands down, the standout appointment is Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. She is a pro-labor activist from La Puente, Calif., who has served as congresswoman for the majority Latino 32nd district representing East Los Angeles for eight years. In a time of severe economic crisis and record unemployment rates, she will bring to the policymaking table an unparalleled understanding of the issues facing low-to-moderate income working families and immigrants.

Solis in Good Company

Solis is in good company. She will be joined by veteran environmental regulator Lisa P. Jackson, who will head the Environmental Protection Agency. Raised in the lower-ninth ward of New Orleans, a neighborhood ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, Jackson has called for action on climate change and global warming.

The lineup also includes noted policy expert Melody Barnes, a former lawyer and executive vice president at the Center for American Progress. As director of domestic policy, Barnes will coordinate national policymaking in the White House and advise Obama and Valerie Jarrett, White House senior advisor and chair of the newly created White House Council on Women and Girls.

The other high-profile women of color appointed by Obama are Susan Rice, former assistant secretary of state for African Affairs under President Clinton, as ambassador to the United Nations and Cassandra Butts, a former Harvard law classmate of Obama’s, as deputy White House counsel.

None of the established posts have ever been held by a woman of color. The influence that these women will have on policy and the direction of the country may be enormous.

Historically Left Out

Historically, women of color have been locked out of the halls of power. Although they experience the fastest growing rate of HIV-AIDS infection of any other group at 75 percent; have infant mortality rates 2.5 times higher than their white counterparts; and are more likely to live in poverty, recent policies such as the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 and even the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 were passed without solid input from women of color.

This new cadre of women in the White House is different. They not only bring knowledge of the economy, environment, education and housing to the table, but a keen familiarity with how issues are impacting communities across race, class, gender and geographic location. They have also been empowered by the Obama Administration to shape policy and key legislation.

In addition to the historic appointments of women of color, Obama’s first 100 days were good for all women.

In the throes of a spectacular financial crisis and just six days into his presidency, Obama lifted the rule that restricted U.S. aid from helping any overseas family planning agency that used its funds to support abortion in any way. While not surprising, it did send a reassuring message about Obama’s intention of overturning harmful and shortsighted policies instituted over the last eight years.

Another positive signal was the new president’s decision to make the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act the first piece of legislation he signed into law. The law gives women a longer time period in which to challenge unequal pay, which can be expected to help women from coast to coast and across occupations. And in his recent Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act, over $100 billion dollars are dedicated directly or indirectly to providing support to women and families.

Less than a month shy of his 100 days, lest he forgot something, Obama created the White House Council for Women and Girls, an interagency office designed to ensure that the policies and programs implemented by different federal agencies take into account the needs of women and girls. A similar office was disbanded by George W. Bush in his first 100 days in office.

With 1,360 days still left in office, the possibility of two Supreme Court nominations over the next few years, two outstanding cabinet appointments, and women still lagging behind in earnings, representation in elected office, and many fields in science and technology, Obama still has plenty more time and opportunity to keep closing the gender gap.

C. Nicole Mason, Ph.D., is a political scientist and the executive director of the Women of Color Policy Network at the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University. She is also a Senior Research Fellow at the National Council for Research on Women.