President Obama covered a wide range of topics during his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, from cybersecurity to international relations to education. But between discussion of immigration, climate change, and foreign relations, another big idea kept popping up. Many of the President’s proposals involved improving the lives of women, particularly in the workplace, something he believes will be critical to ensuring the country’s economic strength.
This isn’t an altogether new thing for this President or the Democratic party. Winning favor with female voters has been a key mission of President Obama’s tenure in office from the outset, starting with the passage of The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act just days after his inauguration in 2009. That piece of legislation, the first President Obama signed in office, made it easier for people to challenge their employers on issues of unequal pay, which disproportionately impact women.
Then, last year, he issued an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from punishing workers who discuss salaries, and he has been a vocal supporter of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which the Republican party has repeatedly shot down.
On Tuesday night, President Obama took up the cause once again, advocating for a number of changes that would both directly and indirectly influence women’s ability to participate and thrive in the workplace.
The first of these proposals was the creation of more affordable childcare options.
As one Pew report recently noted, the number of stay-at-home mothers in the U.S. is on the rise after several decades of declines. And according to the report, one key reason for that may be that the cost of childcare is also on the rise, forcing some women who would have preferred to pursue a career to stay home with their children instead. Obama aims to change this.
“It’s time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us,” he said during the State of the Union.
Paid Maternity Leave
He also broached the topic of paid sick and maternity leave, noting that the United States is the only “advanced country on Earth” that doesn’t guarantee either to its workers. That leaves 43 million Americans with no access to paid leave.
The President said he would work with states to develop paid leave laws and asked Congress to vote on legislation that would provide these benefits to every American worker.
Closing the Gap—and More
Once again, he stressed the need for legislation to close the gender wage gap, guaranteeing female employees pay that is equal to that of their male counterparts. “It’s 2015,” President Obama said. “It’s time.” And he laid out a wide range of other goals that would disproportionately benefit women, including a proposal of a $3,000 tax break per child, per year.
According to a recent Pew study, single mothers account for one quarter of U.S. households, and according to the Census Bureau, about half of kids with single moms live in poverty. So though this tax cut would benefit members of both sexes, it stands to have a more dramatic impact in the lives of single moms living in poverty.
The thrust of the argument behind many of these programs is the idea that it’s not sexism holding women back in the workplace, but logistics. During a recent talk at the Clinton Global Initiative, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — widely expected to make her own run for President again in 2016 — shared many of the same thoughts about closing the gender gap in business.
At the time, she said that in not offering working women “support systems,” including free preschool and maternity leave, the U.S. government is forcing them to make a choice between working and caring for their families. “Those are not just nice luxuries for women,” Clinton said. “They would fundamentally free up women to be in the workforce if they had the skills and desire to do so.”
The odds are slim that President Obama will be able to enact such legislation within his last two years in office. But one thing is for sure: the Democratic party is preparing to make the role of women in the workplace a key battleground of the 2016 election.