Ed note: This Op-ed was featured in the Huffington Post on Friday, November 11, 2011.
On Wednesday, November 9, 2011, President Obama addressed a dinner hosted by the National Women’s Law Center, and delivered a powerful speech on the importance of continuing the fight for equality for women and girls. The dinner honored women Freedom Riders, who put their own lives in jeopardy in order to fight for the end of segregation in the South.
It was an honor to spend an evening with these courageous women, and it was a moment when our nation’s past and present were truly woven together. One Freedom Rider whispered to the President Obama that on the day he was born, August 4, 1961, she was in jail in Mississippi.
The Freedom Riders’ stories should remind us all that change is hard. Very hard. It takes time. But with conviction, determination, and sacrifice, change is always possible. And when it comes to securing equal rights and opportunities for America’s women and girls, our country has made great progress in just a few short years.
Change is the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the very first bill President Obama signed into law, which strengthens a woman’s right to equal pay.
Change is health care reform that makes it illegal to deny coverage for women with pre-existing conditions such as breast cancer or being a victim of domestic violence, and requires insurance companies to cover preventive care, including mammograms and contraception.
Change is investing in STEM education for girls, so that America’s women can be equally represented in the next generation of scientists, researchers, and engineers.
Change is nominating two women to the Supreme Court, so that for the first time in American history, three of the nine justices are women.
Change is creating the White House Council on Women and Girls, which focuses every federal department and agency on working together to improve the lives of women and girls, recognizing that the issues that primarily affect women are not just women’s issues. When a woman is paid equally for equal work, her family is better off, her community is healthier, and our economy grows. When women succeed, America succeeds.
I could not be prouder to work on behalf of a leader who truly understands the importance of these issues. President Obama has worked tirelessly to make sure that women and girls live in a country where, as he put it, “there is no limit on how big they can dream or how high they can reach.”
Yet, President Obama recognizes that we still have a long way to go. Women continue to trail men in science and math, subjects that will be absolutely critical for the jobs of the future. Women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar that men earn. And like every group of Americans, women have been hit hard by the economic crisis, and the recession that followed.
As President Obama pointed out, there are those in Congress who don’t seem to understand the urgency of these challenges. Republicans in the Senate have blocked the American Jobs Act, which would cut taxes for nearly 80 million women. They voted down a measure that would have put hundreds of thousands teachers – about three-quarters of whom are women – back in front of the classroom, where they could help prepare our kids for the future.
The President will continue to urge Congress to put politics aside, and do the right thing for American families. And if Congress refuses to act, he will continue to take steps to improve the economy without them. Because if we harness the potential of every American, there is no question that we will out-compete the rest of the world for the jobs and industries of the future.
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, when the winners of the Google Science Fair were announced. Over 10,000 young people submitted projects, from 90 different countries. In many ways, this competition was a metaphor for the global competition that will define the 21st century. Citizens and countries will compete for the jobs and industries of the future, and as they do, STEM skills will be absolutely critical. So President Obama was thrilled when he heard that this year’s winners were three teenage girls from America.
After the announcement, President Obama invited all three girls to the White House, so he could personally congratulate them on their achievement. I had the chance to meet these young women, and they were extraordinary. Not only were they very smart, they were full of passion and enthusiasm about learning so that they could contribute to society.
As President Obama said on Wednesday, they demonstrate that America is still “a place where ideas are born, where dreams can grow, and where a student in a classroom or a passenger on a bus or a legal secretary in an office can stand up and decide to change the world.”
Continuing our journey toward a more perfect union won’t be easy. It never is. But as women throughout our country fight for change – for equal rights and equal opportunity – the White House will be a partner in their work.
Valerie Jarrett is Senior Advisor to the President and Chair of the Council on Women and Girls.