As a former Tar Heel graduate, it felt great to be back in North Carolina, opening the Governor’s Conference on Women and Girls. It was thrilling to be surrounded by some of the smartest, most accomplished and influential women in the country.
A few months ago, I was sitting with my summer interns. Before they leave our program, I enjoy speaking with them about their experience and answering their questions. And, on this particular day, one of the young women asked me: “what do you draw on for strength when you feel tired or overwhelmed by all that’s in front of you?” The answer was easy for me, and I told her that I draw strength from my grandmothers; women whose lives were challenging in so many ways but because of their tenacity and their faith they persevered.
My grandmother Catherine and my grandmother Vercie were smart and strong and determined, but workplace opportunities were few and far between. Often, they made a way out of no way – determined to ensure a good education and greater opportunity for their children. So, when things get a little tough, I remember the strength, foresight, savvy and faith that allowed them to do so much with so little; I think about all the opportunities I’ve had that they never dreamed of; and I pick myself up, dust myself off and get going.
While Catherine Barnes and Vercie Owen’s stories are part of my DNA, women like that exist for all of us. The women who jumped hurdles so we could be here today. The hard work they did so we could become entrepreneurs and engineers, students and teachers, doctors and artists, mothers, grandmothers, aunts and caretakers. Because of them, many of you have reached the pinnacle of your profession and in some cases, you’ve done it while juggling parent-teacher conferences, taking care of an aging parent or moving in and out of the workplace to accommodate the needs of your family.
We’re fortunate that the country elected a president who knows our country’s success requires that we not only end discrimination against women but that we ensure women are full participants in the life of our nation. The very first bill President Obama signed on January 29, 2009 was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. And then he went on to create the first ever White House Council on Women and Girls to ensure that federal policy decisions consistently reflect our perspectives and needs. In fact, while our policies and initiatives are intended to move the entire nation forward, if you hold them up to the light you’ll find that our accomplishments of the past two years will improve the lives of girls and women at every stage of their lives, and address the concerns that keep us awake late at night.
Under the President’s leadership, we continue to advocate for the most effective policies for women and girls – equal pay for equal work, education and health care. The President supports the Paycheck Fairness Act because as we emerge from one of the worst recessions in American history, the last thing our families can afford is a smaller paycheck because of discrimination. He also understands the importance of building a strong, healthy foundation for our nation’s children and prioritizes smart reforms and investments in early education, our K-12 public school system and higher education, including community colleges. And, since taking office 22 months ago, he’s signed the Affordable Care Act into law and expanded and extended the Children’s Health Insurance Program to ensure that girls and women can access the preventative care they need.
We’ve come a long, long way, and today our laws and culture reflect a greater sense of equality and fairness than ever before. However, we also know that barriers remain, and we have more work to do. This is not the time to become complacent. I know all the women that have come before us – including my grandmothers -- are betting on us to persevere, and our children are counting on us to succeed. They know we can do it, and so do I.
Melody Barnes is the Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council