Thank you Duffy for that generous introduction,
and I also want to thank you and Marcia and the National Women's
Law Center for inviting me here.
As I was thinking about tonight's dinner and all
the progress the women's movement has made in the last century,
the first thing that came to mind wasn't all the legal cases won
or the legislation passed; it wasn't the issues debated or even
the individual rights secured.
I thought about my daughters.
I thought about the world that Sasha and Malia will
grow up in, about the chances they'll have and the challenges they'll
face. And I thought about my hopes for them - that they'll be able
to dream without limit, achieve without constraint, and be free
to seek their own happiness.
At its heart, this has always been the essence of
the women's movement in America - the quest to ensure that our daughters
will have the same opportunities as our sons.
Now, I realize that one day, my girls will discover
that this journey is not over - that there are doors left to be
open and glass ceilings yet to be shattered.
But if they ever come to me and ask whether change
is possible - whether it's worth trying - then the people in this
room and all those who've come before will have given me an inspiring
story to tell.
I'll tell my daughters that there was a time when
no one asked a young woman what she wanted to be when she grew up
because everyone already knew the answer.
But then women stood up and changed that answer.
I'll tell them there was a time when women were
routinely passed over for jobs that went to less qualified men;
when they'd lose their jobs for the crime of becoming pregnant;
when female athletes would lose out on thousands in college scholarships
- a time when all of this was sanctioned by the law.
But then women stood up and changed those laws.
I'll tell them there was a time when women could
be openly harassed and demeaned and abused right in the place where
they worked or went to school.
But then brave Americans like Anne Ladky and Nancy
Kreiter stood up and women everywhere were protected.
And when my daughters ask me whether change is possible,
I'll tell them that there was a time when a woman who graduated
third in her class at one of the most prestigious law schools in
the country couldn't find a single firm in America that would hire
her. And that with all her talent and brilliance, she had to start
her career as an unpaid assistant to a legal secretary at a county
attorney's office in Arizona.
But I'll also mention that years later, the progress
made by the women's movement made it possible for Sandra Day O'Connor
to leave Arizona and become the first female justice of the United
States Supreme Court. And today, if they want to find a female lawyer
in a position of prominence, they need look no further than the
one they call Mom.
I will tell them all of this not to understate the
challenges women face in this new century - challenges to choice
and about pay and violence and employment and family - but to illustrate
that in all the struggles of past generations, one of the most remarkable
achievements of this very American movement has been to forge a
consensus around this ideal of equal opportunity - around the notion
that discrimination based on gender has no place in our society
or in our laws.
The result of this consensus is that today, if you
ask any number of men, women, Democrats, Republicans, liberals or
conservatives, "Do you believe that your daughters should have
the same opportunities as your sons?", the answer you would
hear most frequently is "Of course." And when you say
"of course," it becomes harder to argue that women shouldn't
get equal pay for an equal day's work, or that they shouldn't get
the support they need to be good workers and good parents at the
The other side knows this - they know that equal
opportunity has always been a winning argument for us. And that's
why those who don't want to make it a reality choose to fight on
other terms. They make sure that in any given campaign or debate,
the only woman's issue that ever comes up is not equal pay or health
care or family leave, but the narrowest, most divisive issues like
Now, the ability for a woman to make decisions about
how many children to have and when - without interference from the
government - is one of the most fundamental freedoms we have. We
all know, becoming a parent is one of the most - if not the most
- important jobs there is. No one should make that decision for
a woman and her family but them. And we must keep defending their
right to make this choice in the years to come.
But even as we defend this right, it's important
for us to acknowledge the moral dimension to the choice that's made.
Too often in our advocacy, we forget that. And yet we know that
many women who make the choice may never forget the difficulty that
accompanies it. I noticed that when Hillary Clinton acknowledged
this in a speech earlier this year, some criticized her. But she
was merely recognizing an important moral reality for many.
I also think that whenever possible, we need frame
choice within the broader context of equality and opportunity for
women. Because when we argue big, we win. But when the entire struggle
for opportunity is narrowed, it plays into the hands of those who
thrive on the politics of division; who win by fueling culture wars.
A few weeks ago, I was in Nebraska speaking at the
local chapter of Girls, Inc. As many of you know, this is an organization
that, for over a century, has helped young women gain self-esteem
and opportunity through programs that build job and educational
skills, encourage health awareness, and send women to college on
scholarships. Recently, the American Girl doll company decided to
help out Girls, Inc. by selling special bracelets and donating the
proceeds to the organization - a gesture that seems both harmless
Unless, of course, you're the conservative right,
in which case the most sensible response is to call for a boycott
of American Girl. Because apparently, even though it's an issue
they don't discuss much and barely mention on their website, Girls,
Inc. happens to believe in a woman's right to choose and support
for girls regardless of their sexual orientation. And so just like
that, an organization dedicated to expanding horizons and providing
new opportunity for young women is turned into a front for "abortion-on-demand."
This is what they do. But we don't have to let them
drag us into it. There's too much still at stake for women on too
many different issues for us to keep fighting on their terms. Here
at NWLC, you work on child care and education and health care and
welfare and employment - and there's no reason that work should
be drowned out by a cultural jihad.
In the coming weeks, many will be scouring the record
of Judge Alito to find out exactly where he stands on choice. Since
he would replace a pivotal swing vote on the Court, this makes sense.
But Sandra Day O'Connor was an independent voice on a host of important
women's issues - and her story exemplifies the equality of opportunity
at the heart of the women's movement.
Whether Samuel Alito will put the law on the side
of upholding this ideal for every American should be at the center
of our inquiry into his judicial philosophy, and I know that NWLC
will be leading the way on this.
It's time to find strength in this movement's roots
of opportunity. At a time where the forces of globalization are
transforming the way we work and live, this means taking a new look
at the way government can help create economic opportunity for all
Americans. In this debate, which has only just begun, it's women
who have the most at stake, and women who should be the strongest
The social contract between Americans and their
government - the bargain that says if you're willing to work hard
for your country then your country will make it easier for you to
get ahead and raise a family - was made for a time when most women
stayed home with the kids and most workers stayed with one company
for their entire lives.
But even though this time is long past - even though
the vast majority of women with children today are working, including
single mothers - we still have social policies designed around the
old model of the male breadwinner.
And so women still earn 76% of what men do. They
receive less in health benefits, less in pensions, less in Social
Security. They receive little help for the rising cost of child
care. They make up 71% of all Medicaid beneficiaries, and a full
two-thirds of all the Americans who lost their health care this
year. When women go on maternity leave, America is the only country
in the industrialized world to let them go unpaid. When their children
become sick and are sent home from school, many mothers are forced
to choose between caring for their child and keeping their job.
In short, when it comes to making your way in a
twenty-first century economy, our daughters still do not have the
same opportunities as our sons.
The Administration's answer to this would only exacerbate
the problem for women. The idea here is to give everyone one big
refund on their government - divvy it up into some tax breaks, hand
them out, and encourage everyone to use their share to go buy their
own health care, their own retirement plan, their own unemployment
insurance, education, and so forth.
But for the single mom who's already making less
than her male counterpart - the mom who had to go without a paycheck
for three months when her daughter was born, who's now facing skyrocketing
child care costs and an employer who doesn't provide health care
coverage for part-time work - for this mom, getting a few hundred
bucks off the next tax bill won't solve the problem, will it?
In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society.
But in our past there has been another term for it - Social Darwinism,
every man and woman for him or herself. It allows us to say to those
whose health care or tuition may rise faster than they can afford
- tough luck. It allows us to say to the women who lose their jobs
when they have to care for a sick child - life isn't fair. It let's
us say to the child born into poverty - pull yourself up by your
But there is a problem. It won't work. It ignores
our history. Our economic dominance has depended on individual initiative
and belief in the free market; but it has also depended on our sense
of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake
in the country, that we're all in it together and everybody's got
a shot at opportunity
And so if we're serious about this opportunity,
if we truly value families and don't think it's right to penalize
parenting, then we need to start acting like it. We need to update
the social contract in this country to include the realities faced
by working women.
When a parent takes parental leave, we shouldn't
act like caring for a newborn baby is a three-month break - we should
let them keep their salary. When parents are working and their children
need care, we should make sure that care is affordable, and we should
make sure our kids can go to school earlier and longer so they have
a safe place to learn while their parents are at work. When a mom
or a dad has to leave work to care for a sick child, we should make
sure it doesn't result in a pink slip. When a woman does lose a
job, she should get unemployment insurance even if the job loss
was due to a family emergency and even if she's looking for a part-time
job. And in an economy where health and pension coverage are shrinking,
where people switch jobs multiple times and women don't always depend
on their husbands for benefits, we should have portable health care
plans and pensions that any individual can take with them to any
part-time or full-time job and Medicaid that's there when you need
These are ideas that you've all been fighting for
here at NWLC; ideas that go beyond the culture wars we're used to
and should be able to get support on both sides of the aisle. Ideas
that - at their core - are about expanding opportunity for our daughters.
The other day, I was reading through Jonathan Kozol's
new book, Shame of a Nation, which tells of his travels to underprivileged
schools across America.
At one point, Kozol tells about his trip to Fremont
High School in Los Angeles, where he met a girl who tells him that
she'd taken hairdressing twice, because there were actually two
different levels offered by the high school. The first was in hairstyling;
the other in braiding.
Another girl, Mireya, listened as her friend told
this story. And she began to cry. When asked what was wrong, she
said, "I don't want to take hairdressing. I did not need sewing
either. I knew how to sew. My mother is a seamstress in a factory.
I'm trying to go to college. I don't need to sew to go to college.
My mother sews. I hoped for something else."
I hoped for something else
From the first moment a woman dared to speak that
hope - dared to believe that the American Dream was meant for her
too - ordinary women have taken on extraordinary odds to give their
daughters the chance for something else; for a life more equal,
more free, and filled with more opportunity than they ever had.
In so many ways we have succeeded, but in so many areas we have
much work left to do. The National Women's Law Center has been at
the forefront of this journey, and I look forward to working with
you as you continue to spread hope and expand opportunity for young
women in the years to come. Thank you.