After much ado, President Obama delivered a powerful commencement speech at Barnard College this stormy afternoon, eliciting loud whoops and the occasional “You Go Prez!” from a tent filled with over 600 blue-and-white-clad grads. Breaking the ice with a few jokes, as he is prone to do (“I will begin by telling a hard truth. I am a Columbia College graduate. I know there is a little bit of sibling rivalry here”), the President got down to gender politics pretty quickly, explaining that the year he graduated from Columbia was the first year in the college’s history that women were admitted (oh, and Michael Jackson invented the moonwalk).
Weaving together personal anecdotes about the fiery, ambitious women in his life, President Obama explained that while opportunities for women have grown exponentially in the last thirty years, there is still insurmountable work to be done to protect their reproductive and labor rights, be it Equal Pay for Equal Work or the ability to choose – rather DEMAND – fair access to contraception. Recalling the struggles of his single mother and grandmother (who watched male employees receive higher salaries than her at her bank job), the President also hearkened back to his ‘simple math’ rhetoric, reminding the graduates that women are not only half this country, but more than half the work force (and more than half his voting base), to rippling applause.
But what the President had to say after “our pop culture obsession over beauty and fashion” got a little confusing: “until a girl can imagine herself, can picture herself as a computer programmer, or a combatant commander, she won’t become one.” In the face of folks like Rick Santorum, Liz Trotta and Phyllis Schlafly — who recently warned that “not all feminists are ugly, some are pretty” — this comment struck a chord.
Yes, we need crops of women who are born believing they will excel as CEO’s, but there is also something to be said about compromising your expression of female identity here – Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin have both struggled with determining ’just the right amount of feminine’ under the gross political eye.
“You can be stylish and powerful,” said the President in a later, momentary reconsideration. “That’s Michelle’s advice.”
We hope that wasn’t a case of Romney-esque flip-flopping, pal, because if you’re counting on the majority vote it better be your advice, too.