A Radical Vision for the Council on Girls and Women

Sometimes you fight so long and hard for something that it's hard to believe you've actually won. There was a bit of that sentiment among the feminist community following President Barack Obama's announcement last week that he would create a White House Council on Women and Girls, headed up by Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser and friend of the Obamas, and run by Tina Tchen, who is currently director of the White House Office of Public Liaison.

Some were quick to insert cynicism into the celebration before it had even begun. Chris Cillizza, of The Washington Post blog, The Fix, wrote, "Obama and his team know that if he can maintain his 2008 margin among women in his reelection race in three years time, he will be sitting pretty. Expect then more symbolic moves like the establishment of the Council to demonstrate Obama's commitment to women and women's issues." Amie Newman, of RH Reality Check, shot right back: "Hopefully, this is not simply a ‘symbolic' gesture … but a concrete manifestation of Obama's understanding that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, inequality anywhere is a threat to equality everywhere."

I imagine the truth is somewhere in between. Obama is a savvy politician who understands the importance of attracting and sustaining support from female voters (and often-overlooked male voters who care about injustices facing women and girls). Which, by the way, is a great thing as long as he genuinely plans to make good on his promises. So far, Obama is enacting policy to back up all those pretty words. His first big move in office, after all, was passing the Lilly Ledbetter Act. I don't want to live in a country where we're so fixated on anticipating the next election season that we can't trust a leader's commitment to follow through in good faith.

Obama spoke with refreshing complexity about the council: "Issues like equal pay, family leave, child care and others are not just women's issues. They are family issues and economic issues. Our progress in these areas is an important measure of whether we are truly fulfilling the promise of our democracy for all our people."

I'm thrilled that the president recognizes that so-called "women's issues" are really matters of economic rights and human dignity for all, and agree that it would be great if women and men were afforded child care, family leave, and workplace flexibility. But there will always be a place and a time to advocate for more balanced lives for middle-class women through federal, family-friendly policy. Because those issues directly affect the women in the halls of power, they will always be on the agenda. The editors, producers, and journalists of New York will see to it. The politicians and policy wonks of Washington will make it happen. But it's well past time that the women a train ride away in Baltimore or over the Brooklyn Bridge in Bed-Stuy receive the resources and attention they deserve.

We need to shift our priorities, and the White House Council on Women and Children can be the catalyst. There are some long-neglected issues that I'd like to challenge the council to take on, namely domestic sex trafficking, the HIV/AIDS infection rate among black women, and a federally funded, comprehensive sexual-education policy.

There has been a lot of attention to sex trafficking internationally, thanks to shows like The Wire and the Academy Award-winning film Born into Brothels, but this country is still in denial about the pernicious problem of child prostitution here at home. The average age that an American girl enters "the life," as survivors call it, is 13. The perfect storm of poverty, parental neglect, a failing public education system, and a pornified culture makes these girls vulnerable to the claims of the adult men that prey on them, promising a life of security and maybe even love. Very Young Girls, a documentary on "the life" and one incredible nonprofit organization that is fighting to keep girls out of it, should be mandatory viewing for the council.

Another top priority must be addressing the HIV/AIDS infection rates among African American women. According to the Centers for Disease Control, HIV infection is the leading cause of death for black women aged 25 to 34. In a country that spent $2.26 trillion, or $7,439 per person, on health care in 2007, we are doing a pathetic job of stopping the spread of this completely preventable disease among promising young women. Black women are often at the intersection of failed sex-ed policies, poor medical care, persistent racism, and low self-esteem -- and they are dying as a result. Yet this isn't an issue that mainstream, celebrity-obsessed media spend a lot of time on. Filmmaker Emily Abt worried as she shot and edited her documentary, All of Us, about the HIV/AIDS infection rate among African American women. "I was sure I was going to get scooped," she explains. If only. Instead, her film aired a few times on Showtime last fall, and she continues to struggle to get the issue inserted at the center of public debate where it should be.

One issue that has gotten its fair share of airtime -- thanks, in large part, to its potential for sensational headlines -- is sex education. Now that the Bush era of abstinence-only is over (thank God), it's time that the Obama government takes seriously the need to revise the way we educate teenagers about sexuality. Beyond the oft-discussed ramifications of unrealistic sex-ed -- teen pregnancies (750,000 per year) and sexually transmitted diseases/infections (one in four teens) -- there is so much more that afflicts girls. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, one in six women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime and 80 percent of rape victims are under age 30. Sex ed can't prevent rape entirely, but it can educate both young women and men about issues of consent, alcohol's affect on decision making and communication, and the power dynamics that often underlie sexual assault.

What will make this proposed White House Council truly radical is if it doesn't just serve the self-interest of the women with a seat at the table but the young women and struggling mothers who have been given the scraps of governmental goodwill for far too long. With these women as a top priority rather than an afterthought, this council could demonstrate effective cooperation among departments and agencies, acknowledge that you can't look at gender without also considering class and race (and vice versa), and connect with grass-roots groups doing work on the ground, within their own communities. In short, it could be that transformative.

Before we jump on the cynicism bandwagon, let's just entertain the possibility that enlightened leadership combined with the will of an enraged public (and how can you not be?) might just shift our priorities once and for all -- and lead to real change for women and girls.