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2009-01-27

Ms. Magazine on Barack Obama: "This is What a Feminist Looks Like"

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It’s not surprising to see President Obama gracing the cover of a magazine, except perhaps in one case. The latest issue of Ms. magazine features an illustration of President Obama tearing open his dress shirt and tie to reveal a T-shirt reading “This is what a feminist looks like.” Obama is the first male to appear on the cover in over a decade. Critics have questioned the decision to put Obama on the cover, especially at so early a stage in his presidency. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:

It’s not surprising to see President Obama gracing the cover of magazines, except perhaps one magazine. The latest issue of Ms. magazine features President Obama on its cover, the first time a man is on the cover of this feminist magazine in its history. The cover shows an illustration of Obama tearing open his dress shirt and tie to reveal a T-shirt reading, “This is what a feminist looks like” — you know, the Superman image.

Ms. magazine says the cover reflects Obama’s commitment to feminist issues. But critics have questioned the decision to put Obama on the cover, especially at so early a stage in his presidency.

Ellie Smeal is the publisher of Ms. magazine and co-founder and president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, joining us now from Washington.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Ellie Smeal. Why Obama on your cover?

ELLIE SMEAL:

Well, we wanted to tell the world that he self-identifies as a feminist and that he’s run on the strongest platform of any major party for women’s rights. And we also wanted to capture both the national mood and the feminist mood of high expectations and hope for his presidency.

AMY GOODMAN:

I was looking at a piece by Amy Siskind from the New Women’s Agenda, a new organization, saying, “Where are the modern day national organizations to act as champions of women and to speak out against the issues that affect us all? Where is the outrage about the alarming escalation of domestic violence? Or the fact that women still earn 78 percent of what men do? Or the fact that our representation in politics, academia, and corporate leadership tends to hover around 16 percent? There is a pattern here — we are moving backward.”

She said when she saw the cover, she thought it was “a hoax or a joke.” She said, “But it is not, and this is hardly a laughing matter. The current vision of ‘feminism’ is a man striking a Superman pose.”

Ellie Smeal, your response?

ELLIE SMEAL:

Well, first place, Amy, I wanted to say that this isn’t the first time Ms. has had a man on the cover. It is the first time in twelve years.

But we did it on purpose using the Superman image, because so many people want him or think of him as maybe saving us from global warming, war, torture, all the horrible things that have been happening with the Bush administration. But we realize, of course, that he’s an ordinary man. And one of the reasons that the women’s movement exists is that we have to organize, organize, and make sure that our issues are front and center and hold our leaders’ feet to the fire. We say all that really in the cover story. In fact, what we have in the cover story is major women’s leaders, also our readers, giving their vision of what must be done to turn this country around and to remake America. So we know exactly what we were doing. In fact, we use his own joke, where he said he wasn’t born in a manger, but he was on Krypton. In other words, we all know that no one person can save us, but we do have to make sure that so much gets done, especially in the area of women’s rights.

AMY GOODMAN:

We have never had a woman president. Amy Siskind criticizes you for not putting Hillary Clinton on the cover. Cynthia McKinney also ran as the Green Party candidate; she wasn’t on the cover. Ellie Smeal?

ELLIE SMEAL:

Well, you know, let’s be real. This was the special inaugural issue. He was being sworn in. What we wanted to do is make sure that the women’s issues and the feminist issues were being discussed at this time. And, you know, some people said that we should have put Sarah Palin on the cover. I mean, give me a break. So the reality is, is that we were trying to capture the mood of what was happening today. We’re at a unique moment in history where there can be transformational change, and we want to make sure that in that transformational change, there is real change for women.

AMY GOODMAN:

Can you talk about the other pieces that you have in this inaugural issue, Ellie Smeal, and what you think confronts what many are calling, hoping for, “a dawn of a new era”?

ELLIE SMEAL:

Well, that’s why — you know, we’re not just people who hope. We want to make action and make sure things happen. So we have a piece on Afghanistan, for example, and on the dreadful conditions for women, a frontline piece on the horrible security and the attacks for schools and acid attacks on girls and the killing of women’s rights leaders there. And what’s happening? Certainly not the picture that the Bush administration wanted to paint. We also have a piece on the economic stimulus package and the importance that women’s jobs are a part of the mix and are created and that the safety net programs have to be restored, which have been so torn apart by the Bush administration.

AMY GOODMAN:

Could you talk more about that, on the economic stimulus and the state of jobs?

ELLIE SMEAL:

Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, just reading the headlines today, the latest number of job losses is quite astounding, not specifically focusing on women. But you’ve got Sprint Nextel and at least eight other companies, like Caterpillar, Home Depot, Pfizer, 75,000 jobs. Pfizer, 20,000; Caterpillar, 20,000; Sprint Nextel, 8,000; 7,000 jobs lost at Home Depot; 3,400, Texas Instruments; General Motors, another 2,000. Microsoft says they are going to be cutting as many as 5,000 jobs in the company’s first mass layoffs. How does this affect women specifically, Ellie?

ELLIE SMEAL:

Oh, terribly, obviously. 40 percent of women now are the sole breadwinners in their family and live without a male partner. And even where men and women are coupled, without the women’s income, that family would drop to poverty. So when we’re talking about creating jobs, we must talk about creating jobs that women and men are due.

And one of the things that the women’s organizations became very concerned with, when they first started talking about this economic stimulus package, they talked about shovel-ready jobs in the construction industry. Well, women are only about 13 percent of the jobs of the construction industry. So we have been making sure that this stimulus package has jobs in education and healthcare, which is just reversed. Women are the vast number of those jobs. And I am happy to say that with encouragement from the women’s organizations, the Obama-Biden administration has released a gender impact statement of jobs that will be created by this. Right now, it’s about 42 percent, they estimate, of the job stimulus package before Congress will be women’s jobs, because they’ll be in industries where women have a large role. So we’re very concerned that this package is not a package of the New Deal era, where women were not a dominant part of the workforce, but a package of the modern era.

AMY GOODMAN:

I’m looking at a piece called “Ana’s Choice” by Patricia Zavella that appears in the winter issue of Ms. magazine, talking about women immigrants, in particular, about the issue of the number of families with at least one undocumented adult. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates 6.6 million families with at least one undocumented adult in 2005. 3.1 million of the children were US citizens in mixed-status families such as these. Legal privileges afforded to citizens or permanent residents but not to unauthorized family members particularly affect issues like healthcare.

ELLIE SMEAL:

Yes. We wanted to make people realize how the splitting up of families, the raiding of families, that in some families a child would have been born in the United States, where his brother or sister was born in Mexico, and he would be covered by — or he or she, the one — the person that — the child that was born in the United States would be covered with social benefits that the child that wasn’t would not. I mean, this is all crazy.

We cannot have this treatment of immigration — immigrants this way, and we must change our immigration policies. We cannot continue these heartless raids, deporting mothers, leaving children behind. We must have not only amnesty, but a sensible immigration policy. And frankly, we’ve got to stop the exploitation of workers. Let’s face it, the Bush administration talked with forked tongue. The business wants to bring undocumented workers in, because they can exploit them. And we just got to stop that and have a much more humane immigration policy.

AMY GOODMAN:

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, one of the first acts of the new Senate that was passed —

ELLIE SMEAL:

Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — explain it.

ELLIE SMEAL:

Well, Lilly Ledbetter Act simply reverses the Roberts court Supreme Court decision, which gutted Title 7, essentially wage discrimination rights, by saying that — it’s been since 1964 that when you took a wage discrimination case, that you could look at the entire record. In this case, Lilly Ledbetter had been working for Goodyear for almost thirty years. But she did not find out she was being discriminated against until the latter part. And what Roberts said is, within the 180 days of being hired, the first six months, you have to file your wage discrimination case, in other words, the first instance. And if you didn’t know you were discriminated against in that first instance, too bad for you. Well, the average worker would never know immediately if they were being discriminated against.

So, in essence, what seems fair, which they said was just a statute of limitations, which of is ridiculous, was gutting the act, because essentially in the past every wage — every check, every paycheck that was discriminatory, was considered an act of discrimination. So the minute you found out, you can not only take an act against that paycheck, but it would go back, and you can find out how long it was happening. Anyway, this restores the original intention of that protection, and it does it not only for women workers, which I think a lot of people think it only covers women, it actually covers sex, race, age, disability. So it covers a whole host of workers and enables them to fight wage discrimination.

AMY GOODMAN:

And the convention on the elimination of discrimination against women, the UN resolution that the US has refused to sign onto?

ELLIE SMEAL:

Right. We’re one of the only countries in the world now that has not signed onto this woman’s treaty of the UN.

AMY GOODMAN:

What has been the controversy?

ELLIE SMEAL:

Well, it was stopped by Helms — excuse me. I’m a little dry. It was stopped by Jesse Helms, and it was, you know, the same old nonsense. They would say it was leading to abortion or would take advantage of corporations or allow people to be sued. The reality is, it was a right-wing attack on it, and it has been held up in this — it was held up by Jesse Helms for years in the Senate Judiciary Committee. And then, by the time we get a majority of Democrats in, we’ve had a hostile president. The Bush administration has been very opposed to it, too.

So it’s —- what we wanted to do here is show how it could benefit not only the women of the world, but the women in the United States. So we looked at San Francisco, which has adopted a local -—

AMY GOODMAN:

We only have five seconds, but I just want to ask, because Hillary Clinton pledged to get this approved?

ELLIE SMEAL:

Yes. Yes, she has, and so has the administration of Obama.

AMY GOODMAN:

Ellie Smeal, I want to thank you for being with us, publisher of Ms. magazine —-

ELLIE SMEAL: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: —- co-founder and president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, speaking to us from Washington.

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