President Barack Obama will leave behind a mixed, but still impressive, legacy on women’s issues. He didn’t do much to actively defend reproductive rights, and during his presidency Republicans took over state legislatures and enacted hundreds of abortion restrictions. But his administration also took big steps to combat campus sexual assault and violence against women, improve equal pay protections, and actively promote women’s issues.
And one thing is for sure: Obama was America’s first openly self-identified feminist. It’s a symbolic landmark that really matters for women.
Last year, Obama published an insightful essay for Glamour explaining why he’s a feminist — and why feminism is just as important for men as it is for women.
“It is absolutely men’s responsibility to fight sexism too,” Obama wrote. And he said it’s important that his daughters have a feminist dad, “because now that’s what they expect of all men.”
The piece is a lovely, personal reflection about how Obama’s feminism and his life have been shaped by his daughters, wife, mother, and grandmother, as well as public figures like the late Congress member Shirley Chisholm.
He talks about the “unique challenges women face” due to gender stereotypes in society. That’s one reason, he said, that the burden of childcare fell “disproportionately and unfairly on Michelle,” because she knew “few people would question my choices.”
He doesn’t shy away from intersectional discussions about both race and gender: He talks about how Michelle had to worry about being seen as too “angry” or aggressive as a black woman; how they have taught their daughters to speak up when they see a double-standard based on either gender or race; how America has “never been just about the Benjamins; it’s about the Tubmans too.”
But most of all, Obama talks about how gender stereotypes “affect all of us, regardless of our gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation,” himself and other men included.
But I also have to admit that when you’re the father of two daughters, you become even more aware of how gender stereotypes pervade our society. You see the subtle and not-so-subtle social cues transmitted through culture. You feel the enormous pressure girls are under to look and behave and even think a certain way.
And those same stereotypes affected my own consciousness as a young man. Growing up without a dad, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who I was, how the world perceived me, and what kind of man I wanted to be. It’s easy to absorb all kinds of messages from society about masculinity and come to believe that there’s a right way and a wrong way to be a man. But as I got older, I realized that my ideas about being a tough guy or cool guy just weren’t me. They were a manifestation of my youth and insecurity. Life became a lot easier when I simply started being myself.
Obama said we need to keep changing the attitude that “criticizes our daughters for speaking out and our sons for shedding a tear … that punishes women for their sexuality and rewards men for theirs … that congratulates men for changing a diaper, stigmatizes full-time dads, and penalizes working mothers.”
Obama became the first sitting president to identify as a feminist in a 2016 speech at the White House United State of Women Summit. And the Glamour essay, some of which is repurposed from that June speech, is a pretty on-point overview of major feminist themes.
Feminism is often stereotyped as being anti-male, or blind to the unique challenges that men face. But Obama points out that if you really understand feminism, that’s not what it’s about.
Feminism gave us tools to understand how bias and gender stereotypes affect women. But it also uses those tools to show how these biases affect everyone — how misogyny and toxic masculinity go hand in hand, and how feminism won’t work unless people of all genders are working for it.
When public figures like President Obama speak out about this, it makes a powerful statement. And it’s the kind of statement that needs to be made every day in order to move America’s toxic gender politics into the 21st century.