Leadership Question of the Day–Please Reply

by Gloria Feldt on June 6th, 2009
in Leadership and tagged , , , , ,

I’ve often written about what I like to call Obama’s leadership leaps. The president has a unique capacity to catch the wave of events, especially controversial ones, and turn them into amazing rhetorical moments in which he teaches and leads people to their higher selves.

Once again in the last two days, I’ve been profoundly moved by the brilliant leadership leap the president showed the world during his visit to Muslim countries. It was the same kind of action he took when he spoke on race during last year’s presidential primary after controversy fomented by his former pastor threatened to deep-six his quest for the Oval Office.

He knows how to do this on the toughest and most seemingly intractable of issues; his sense of timing and tone has usually been impeccable.

That’s why I ask this leadership question today: why in the world does Obama not take the leadership leap when it comes to advocating simple justice for women?

Note that I didn’t say “abortion” or “reproductive rights” or even “reproductive and sexual health.” That’s because when you peel back the layers of the debate about these issues, it comes down plain and simple to competing worldviews about women’s power and women’s rightful place in the world.

The question etched itself sharply into public view last week when Obama issued such a tepid statement in response to the cold-blooded assassination of Dr. George Tiller while that courageous doctor–whose mantra was “Trust Women”–was serving as an usher in his Lutheran church. And indeed, Obama has even failed to acknowledge the lapses in basic Federal law enforcement that might have prevented such a devastating crime–a basic executive leadership action, one would think.

To be sure, the president made a point of signing the Lilly Ledebetter Fair Pay Act his first such act after he took office. It was a grand symbolic gesture that should not go unheralded. Still, he has stated the Freedom of Choice Act is not on his priority list–though during his campaign he said he looked forward to signing it– and his quest for “common ground” on abortion has led him to create a task force rather than stake out his own position as he has done for other issues. In an unusually tone-deaf move in the wake of Tiller’s murder, he appointed someone unalterably opposed to women’s reproductive rights and justice to lead the DHHS Center for Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

In two radio programs I participated in after the Tiller tragedy (Your Call and On the Issues) I was struck by the recurring “does he just not get it?” theme among the panelists, and a budding idea that President Obama should take a tour of health facilities where abortion is performed.

What do you think of that? How would you organize it if so? What other thoughts do you have for how to bring Obama to the place where he’ll take the leadership leap for women as he has so brilliantly and courageously done for other issues?

Please tell me your thoughts by posting in the comments section below. I think it is time for us to take a leadership leap.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

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7 Responses to Leadership Question of the Day–Please Reply

  1. Aletha says:

    Obama may not get it, but he does get the usual Democratic strategy, which is that Democrats can count on getting the majority of women to vote Democratic as long as they throw women a few crumbs, because Democrats can always make the case that Republicans will take away our rights. In other words, Democrats can count on women having nowhere else to go.

    I think you had the answer to this dilemma, Gloria, when you suggested women stiffen our spines. Obama and his party may or may not take note of that, but if more than a few women leaders threaten to leave the fold, I bet Democrats would be quite concerned, at least provided it is not just a bluff.

    Obama is an amazing orator, but I am not at all convinced he is teaching anything besides how to turn reality on its head. For instance, his statement that

    America is not a crude stereotype of a self interested empire.

    When the actions of a nation bespeak little more than corporate and military might making right, more or less masterfully veiled by fine words spinning those actions as dedication to freedom and democracy, it is arguably accurate to say this is not a crude stereotype of a self interested empire. Nevertheless, however refined and convinced of its benevolence it may be, far too many actions of this nation have been those of a self interested empire.

  2. MadamaAmbi says:

    Gloria–the name of the game is pressure. Obama will build consensus and make every effort to give dissenters seats at the table. He is trying to change the climate in Washington. But, he will also respond to pressure and he has said so in numerous ways. The problem is that many of his supporters, and many non-activist women, misunderstand the nature of pressure. They think that taking a public stance, calling on President Obama to act more decisively or speak more strongly, is undermining the President and/or undermining any goodwill coming from the White House toward women’s causes.

    This is WRONG. I have been paying close attention to Obama for over a year, and it’s my judgment (not only! he has said so!) that he will not act on controversial issues UNLESS and UNTIL he can back up his action by pointing to the pressure he is receiving. He is practically begging Democrats to pressure him to do the right thing!

    We need some podium thumpers to call a press conference. If I had contacts with Barbara Boxer, I’d be on the phone to her right now. I’d get her at the podium with other commanding feminists and pitch some pithy hardballs straight at the President.

    yours
    Madama

  3. Liz @ Creative Liberty says:

    Gloria, as you know, the LGBT community is having parallel thoughts about Obama. The aftermath of the Prop. 8 court decision has many wondering if he’s our friend at all.

    I think the comment above about pressure is appropriate for any group he’s said he supports and/or has courted as a voting block. I don’t think waiting for him to feel safe enough to do the right thing is going to cut it for any of us.

  4. Gloria Feldt says:

    Thank you, Aletha, Madama, and Liz, for these observations. I am stunned at the deafening silence of the women’s movement’s largest organizations. Compare that with the laudably immediate and intense reactions from LGBT groups–which represent far fewer though no less important voters–and then guess who will get more attention faster. I think the women’s movement today should not just make alliance with LGBT activists, but also take a page from the LGBT activism book.

    Madama, re Barbara Boxer, she needs first to hear from CA constituents. She is among the most strategic politicians as well as the most progressive and courageous on these issues. That she didn’t lead a charge to get Obama to speak out more strongly in the aftermath of Tiller’s murder tells me she isn’t hearing that call from her CA constituents or leaders of the major women’s groups.

  5. MadamaAmbi says:

    Gloria–I’m not sure it’s correct to say that the major women’s organizations were silent. They were putting out alot of press online, but if appearing on TV is still the gold standard for visibility, I, for one, didn’t see women & feminists holding a press conference. I don’t know why and I’d like to know.

    A member of Feminist Majority told me that Ellie Smeal’s first priority was getting Federal protection for abortion clinics, so that’s a very behind the scenes kind of activity. NOW is in transition, with Kim Gandy leaving her post and elections of new officers happening this weekend. Here’s what I want to know: did any of the leaders of the major organizations call a press conference? And if they did, where did it go? This is why I started thinking about Barbara Boxer–when she calls a press conference, presumably people will pay attention.

  6. Aletha says:

    Perhaps many mainstream feminists do not know what to make of President Obama. They are staring at betrayal, and I imagine it is very difficult for those who adamantly supported Obama to come to terms with that. It might be just as difficult to decide on an appropriate response. Obama is slippery and hard to pin down. No doubt many still want to give him the benefit of the doubt. The LGBT community is less inclined to hide their heads in the sand when being slapped in the face, such as when the Justice Dept. defended DOMA recently.

    As for NOW, they found time to put David Letterman into their Media Hall of Shame.

  7. Gloria Feldt says:

    June 6 at 9:02am Eleanor J. Bader wrote on Facebook in response to this post: I don’t think that Obama sees women, people of color, the working classes or the poor as a separate groups of people, needing specific attention. He tends to talk about human rights and general equity, without homing in on the isms that divide and torment us: race, class, sexual preference or gender.

    Gloria Feldt to Eleanor at 7:12am June 8:
    But he did make that great speech about race…and he made a beautiful if still incomplete statement about gay rights recently. Also he knew the symbolic importance of signing the Ledbetter bill first.

    Eleanor J. Bader replied at 7:26am June 8:
    Sure, Gloria, feel free to post this or not. I could not get the link to work–sorry! I don’t think his race speech was as powerful or as damning as it could or should have been. He’s pushing the common denominator, which can be good, or not, depending on need and context.

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