by Shari MacDonald Strong
In her first official, post-Inaugural act as First Lady, on Thursday Michelle Obama hosted a reception at the White House honoring Lilly Ledbetter, hours after President Obama signed a fair pay bill named after Ledbetter: a former Goodyear Tire Rubber Company plant supervisor who won a lawsuit against her employer for unfair pay practices, but whose judgment was overturned when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Ledbetter had waited to long to file her complaint. (This, despite the fact that Goodyear had kept its illegal pay practices secret, ensuring that Ledbetter couldn’t file a complaint any earlier.)
The fact that the first bill to be signed by President Obama has such a far-reaching impact for families and working mothers (the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act grants more time for suits like Ledbetter’s to be filed) communicates much about this administration’s priorities (i.e., that women and families are high on the list, not at the bottom). The fact that this reception was working mom Michelle Obama’s debut as First Lady also says much about hers.
Throughout the presidential campaign, and since the election, Michelle Obama has made clear that, whatever White House demands arise, her family is her number one priority. Some feminists balked at this delineation, wishing that Michelle Obama would more overtly, or perhaps even more aggressively, assert her new role as one of the most powerful women in America.
Of course, the two roles – private mom, political mom -- are not mutually exclusive, as women like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, new Secretary of State (and former First Lady) Hillary Clinton, and Ledbetter herself have demonstrated. Motherhood only intensifies a woman’s reasons to be politically aware and active and involved. Sometimes, we moms get a babysitter and go to the peace march, or leave the kids at home with our partners while we go work the phone banks. At other times, we sit down at the kitchen table, and we help with homework. Whatever we do, we do it for (and not in spite of) our children. It’s all different aspects of the same work: work that we do for them, and for their future.
It’s what mothers have done all along, although – as a quick glance at CNN or CSPAN shows -- we’re doing in more and more publicly, at increasingly high levels of influence. Obama, Pelosi, Clinton, and Ledbetter all played a role in the pageantry surrounding this week’s bill signing – and all were far more than window dressing. Groundbreakers, glass ceiling shatterers – they are the very image of what powerful motherhood now looks like in the United States, and of what political moms are becoming.
Do I really live in a country where equal pay for women finally matters? I asked myself as I watched coverage of the bill-signing. Where strong women like Obama and Clinton and Pelosi have a voice and influence both policy and public perception? Where my daughter and sons might expect in their adulthood to earn equal pay for equal work? Where the idea that women are equal to men has real weight at long last?
It’s the first bill, in the first month. There are many challenges ahead, and disappointment is inevitable. This is the U.S. government, after all, not the Land of Oz. But I am encouraged. I am inspired. And I’m grateful, both to Barack and Michelle, for sending the quiet, but unmistakable message out early: Women matter in this country. Children matter in this country. Who knows? This could turn out to be a very good year, after all.