Op-ed: What the President Failed to Say in the SOTU
Op-ed: What the President Failed to Say in the SOTU
President Obama had a lot to say in his State of the Union address, but there was also plenty left unsaid.
I watched President Obama’s State of the Union address along with 33 million other people last night. The SOTU is like the Super Bowl–it’s one of the top-rated TV shows of the year, broadcast on 14 different networks. At 65 minutes, Obama’s speech wasn’t the longest (Bill Clinton still holds that record) or the shortest (Ronald Reagan holds that one), but for those of us who were waiting to hear the President talk about certain issues, it was the most frustrating.
If there was one theme that Obama kept returning to it was jobs. Obama mentioned women in the workforce, but not these statistics: With unemployment rates remaining virtually unchanged for the past three years, women over 40 represent the largest demographic among the long-term unemployed. Latina women, single women and African-American teenaged girls have the highest rates of unemployment, according to Department of Labor statistics.
In addition, President Obama glossed over these DOL facts: 71.9 million women are employed or looking for work, representing 58.6 percent of all women aged 16 and over.
But the likelihood of women getting well-paid full-time work is far less than it is for men. According to the DOL, women are nearly twice as likely as men to work part time. Not because they want to, but because they can’t find full-time work. The number of women in part-time employment is double that of men and triple for women over 35.
The DOL notes that "more women are currently working part-time than were doing so prior to the recession, reflecting the increase in women working part-time because they can’t find
full-time work. One in five women working part-time are doing so because that can’t find full-time work. Prior to the recession, less than one in ten women working part-time were doing so because they couldn’t find full-time work."
President Obama also failed to mention the most important employment issue for LGBT people: The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).
In a speech where the President said he would sign executive orders to raise the federal minimum wage for workers "feeding our troops," there was no mention of signing ENDA into law via executive order. In fact, there was no mention of ENDA at all. Yet every day LGBT people are at risk at their jobs. In my state of Pennsylvania alone there have been a dozen well-publicized firings of lesbian and gay teachers for being gay in the past year, including two teachers who were fired because they married their long-time partners.
Obama’s emphasis on "it’s time" to address issues of women in employment did not include lesbians. Nor did it include the actual numbers of what the gender wage gap means for women who represent more than two-thirds of those living at or below the poverty level in the U.S. Women make about 77c for every dollar a man makes for comparable work. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story: Women with the least education–a high school degree or GED make only 50% of what men make with a similar education. And women with PhDs also only make 53% of what men make with PhDs. And while the President had invited the new CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra, to be present in the audience and pointed her out during his speech as the first woman to head an automotive company, he didn’t mention that only five percent of CEOs in the U.S. are women.
Lean in for that news, Mr. President.
The pay gap is huge. Per year it’s an average of $11,000. That amount is also the poverty level, which makes it pretty succinct: the difference in wages is often the same as the difference between poverty and not. And the pay gap widens as women get older, according to the DOL. But the average woman will lose a half million dollars in income over her working life compared to men in the same job.
Shouldn’t the President have noted that fact?
President Obama also neglected to mention the anti-gay problem with the Sochi Olympics as he bragged that American athletes would be "bringing home the gold." On Monday the Mayor of Sochi said there were no gay people in his city. Is that because they have all been arrested? Last Friday, Jan. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin told ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos for an interview with ABC’s This Week that gays coming to the Olympics needed to "leave the children alone," repeating the faux meme that lesbians and gays are child molesters.
Obama also lauded U.S. efforts to work with various governments in Africa, but failed to note that both Nigeria and Uganda have just passed laws making it illegal to be gay or lesbian and making consensual lesbian or gay relationships punishable by imprisonment or death.
The President spent about 15 of the last minutes of the SOTU speech talking about withdrawing from Afghanistan and lauding our military. He pointed to Sgt. Cory Remsburg, who had been horribly wounded on his tenth–tenth–deployment to the war. Remsburg got shrapnel in his brain from an IED and has endured two dozen surgeries. His heroism brought the audience to its feet for a full minute and a half of applause.
But what the President didn’t mention was that Remsburg is far from singular. One in five veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Most are permanently disabled.
The President also failed to address what is happening to women in the military–rape is at an all-time high and female veterans are the most likely to be living in their cars and not have a job when they leave the military.
In 2013, right after he was re-elected to his second term, President Obama announced in his SOTU that it would be the "year of the woman"–that it was time for women to be brought up to the same level of equality as men in the workforce.
But President Obama has fewer women in his second-term cabinet than any of the last three presidents and had to be forced to nominate Janet Yellen as the new Chair of the Federal Reserve. Obama only chose Yellen after Larry Summers, the controversial former President of Harvard University who famously said women weren’t up to science and math. What example does that set?
So in the 2014 SOTU, Obama put women front-and-center again–sort of. But if he didn’t even mention ENDA or the perils for women in the military or the widening wage gap for women, how much is he actually willing to do for women and LGBT people that moves past speechifying lip service?
SOTU speeches are notorious for being long on plaudits and short on substance. But as Democrats applauded and Republicans scowled, lesbians all over America were probably wondering the same thing I was: When will you speak for us, Mr. President? Because our lives are still very much on the line, just as our wounded warriors have been.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review. She won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for historical/cultural fiction for From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth. Her novella, Ordinary Mayhem, won Honorable Mention in Best Horror 2012. Her novel, After It Happened will be published in fall 2014. @VABVOX