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Women Have a Friend in the White House, But the Second Shift Endures

Sharon Lerner

Though President Obama used the event to declare that “women are not a voting bloc,” it’s clear that the White House had the election in mind when it released a new report Friday on women and girls. It was a time to celebrate all the administration’s done for women in its first term, from passing the Lilly Ledbetter Act on equal pay, to updating the FBI’s definition of rape, providing loans to female small business owners, supporting women’s careers in science and technology, and passing health care reform, which, of course, was a big win for women.

And why not revel in the clear support of this contested voting bl.. – er, group of citizens? Even without his clear commitment to a range of policies geared toward gender equity, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Obama wouldn’t trump Romney among women come November. Democratic presidential candidates usually win among women. And this time, the GOP’s assaults on contraception have been so bizarre and nasty, they’ve offended women -- and, I daresay, plenty of men -- well into the political center and beyond. (Thanks, Rush.) In his typical I’ll-say-anything-that-might-help-me fashion, Romney has been right there with the worst of them, calling “to get rid of” Planned Parenthood.

Based on the results of last week’s Gallup poll of registered voters in 12 battleground states, in which Obama led Romney by 19 percent among women under 50, it appears there will be no Etch A Sketch powerful enough to erase Romney's particular repugnance to women. On top of that solid political advantage, the White House report touting its work for women, was essentially icing.

At the same time, Friday's event was frustrating given the way the President spoke about the division of work, or perhaps careers, within his own marriage. The father of two daughters, son of a single mother and husband of an accomplished (some would say intimidating) wife, has always been clear about his admiration and respect for women. When it comes to women’s issues, it’s pretty safe to say he “gets it” more than any president to date.

Still, Obama described the “extraordinary burden” of juggling work and family as one that fell squarely on Michelle, a lawyer and executive: “When she was with the girls she’d feel guilty that she wasn’t giving enough time to her work and when she was at work she’d feel guilty that she wasn’t spending time with the girls.” She “gave it her all to balance raising a family and pursuing a career,” while he, it seems, was simply pursuing a career.

Granted, the road to the presidency is no ordinary career path, and it’s hard to imagine Obama having had time to do anything in addition to teaching, practicing law, serving in the state legislature, and later the Senate. But if he’s going to offer up his own story to help explain why women are still earning just 77 cents to a man’s dollar, it’s worth noting that part of the reason is that even highly educated career women often single-handedly, or at least disproportionately, bear the brunt of the domestic load -- a paradox that Arlie Hochschild famously spotlighted over twenty years ago in her book The Second Shift. Some things, it seems, never change.

The administration’s policy solutions, and its promotion of them, ought to reflect this problem, too. As Obama notes, the White House has done much to promote workplace flexibility. But rather than saying that they have “encouraged companies to make workplaces more flexible so women don’t have to choose between being a good employee or a good mom,” Obama might refer to the end goal as a country in which all people are relieved of the choice between being a good employee and a good parent.