On January 29, 2009—just over a week after his inauguration—President Obama sat down at his desk in the Oval Office and signed his very first bill: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The legislation was named after a woman who had been paid significantly less than her male colleagues for over a decade, and it ensured that employees have the right to sue for pay discrimination.
President Obama’s action gave women a stronger tool to fight for equal pay, and it made them more financially secure. It also signaled clearly that our president was going to spend his term fighting for a woman’s right to have the same chance as a man to succeed, to have a better shot at escaping poverty, and to create a better life for themselves and their families.
Get TalkPoverty In Your Inbox
Facing opposition from an unfriendly Congress, President Obama signed executive orders granting federal workers and contractors a higher minimum wage and paid sick days, making pay more transparent by requiring government contractors to give their employees the necessary information each pay period to make sure they are getting paid what they are owed, and making workplaces safer by allowing victims of sexual assault or harassment their day in court. These reforms were key for women, who make up the majority of minimum wage workers and who are often tasked with caring for dependents when they are sick. Making pay transparent also helps employees to know if their pay is lower than other similar employees—which could be an indication of pay discrimination.
President Obama also enacted one of the most significant anti-poverty measures in years when he expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit in the stimulus bill. Between 2009 and 2011, these expansions kept 9 million people out of poverty. They were particularly crucial for women and their families, who would have lost over $8 billion in tax assistance if the reforms had been allowed to expire.
Additionally, President Obama vigorously enforced civil rights laws, which removed impediments to opportunities for women and girls. The Obama administration stepped up enforcement of Title IX to combat sexual assault in universities and colleges, as well as K-12 schools. He also fought for and signed the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which was expanded to better protect all women, including LGBTQ individuals, American Indian and Alaskan Native women, and women who are undocumented immigrants.
But arguably no legislation during the Obama years did more for women’s equality than the Affordable Care Act (ACA). For many years prior to the passage of the ACA, health care costs were the leading cause of bankruptcy filings—meaning that many women and families were just one medical emergency away from financial ruin. Additionally, simply being a woman was considered a pre-existing condition, which allowed insurance companies to charge women more for health coverage. In fact, before the ACA, 92% of health insurers gender-rated their plans—charging women more than men for their plans—even when maternity coverage was excluded. Women are unfortunately used to paying more for things labeled as “for women,”—for jeans, razors, or beauty products, for example—but health insurance is no longer one of those things.
In total, nearly 10 million women gained health coverage since the enactment of the Affordable Care Act. Medical bankruptcies decreased, as did the share of Americans struggling to pay their medical bills. Insurance companies can no longer charge women more than men because of their gender. And through Medicaid expansion—in the 32 states and DC that expanded Medicaid as the law intended—low-income women gained access to health care and mandated coverage of many core preventative services, including contraception.
These significant achievements have made a real difference in women’s lives. Thank you, Obama. Really. Thank you a million times over.
Now, as Obama concludes his presidency, much of the progress of the past eight years is threatened. We have replaced our unabashedly feminist president with a president who isn’t quite convinced that women should be allowed to work. Additionally, President-elect Trump and Congressional Republicans have made repealing the ACA their banner cry, and Trump has promised to appoint a Supreme Court justice who will overturn Roe v. Wade. Meanwhile, Speaker Ryan has argued for the block granting of Medicaid, housing, nutrition assistance, school lunches and more, and for dramatic cuts to social safety net programs—all while potentially slashing taxes for big corporations, millionaires, and billionaires.
The fight ahead to preserve our progress is daunting, but we’re ready. The well-being and economic security of women and families are worth fighting for with everything we’ve got.
Editor’s note: TalkPoverty presents this series in collaboration with the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.