Remarks of Senator Barack Obama at the National Womens Law Center

National Women's Law Center, Washington, DC | November 10, 2005

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 same time.

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 late-term abortion.

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 and well-intentioned.

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 voices.

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 bootstraps

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 it.

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.