By Liz Hay
Elm Staff Writer
On the eve of their inauguration, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris announced the creation of the White House Gender Policy Council to advance the interests of women and girls across an array of domestic and foreign policy areas. This Council will renew the work of the White House Council on Women and Girls established under the Obama Administration. The Obama-era group was disbanded in 2017 by the Trump Administration.
The new council will “coordinate government policy that impacts women and girls across a variety of issues, including racial justice and economic security, and work in cooperation with other White House policy councils,” according to The Hill. The council will be co-chaired by Jennifer Klein, Chief Strategy and Policy Officer at TIME’S UP, and Julissa Reynoso, chief of staff to First Lady Jill Biden and former U.S. Ambassador to Uruguay.
Amidst the most pressing domestic issues for the council to address are the health and financial stability of women and girls during the pandemic. Women’s economic priorities have been particularly underrepresented in federal action on COVID-19 and this new council could influence future efforts to better support women’s needs.
For example, the December jobs report revealed that women accounted for all jobs losses reported in that quarter while men on average saw returns to jobs lost during the pandemic. It must be noted that women are not affected equally by these challenges; women with disabilities and Black and Latina women all face higher rates of unemployment due to COVID-19 compared to white women, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center.
These economic needs and disparities — faced both by women in general and by underserved groups in particular — must be mitigated by nuanced policy that will support all women during COVID-19.
Along with domestic issues, council will also advise on foreign policy and presents an opportunity to integrate feminist policy perspectives in U.S. foreign affairs. Several countries have officially announced a feminist foreign policy, with U.S. neighbor Mexico joining that number in January of 2020, according to Foreign Policy.
The choice to appoint Jennifer Klein as council co-chair could indicate movement toward a similarly direct statement of feminist foreign policy. Klein serves on the Board of the International Center for Research on Women, a group which recently published a brief entitled “Defining Feminist Foreign Policy” that sought to identify priorities for implementation of feminist foreign policy. The report mentions that the U.S. has failed to demonstrate commitment to feminist foreign policy in international actions such as being one of six countries to refuse to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
As it is currently comprised, the Gender Policy Council has great potential to correct imbalances in representation in important domestic and foreign policy. However, the council’s goals must be expanded to include all stakeholders harmed by gender inequality to truly achieve its mission. So far, the goals of the Gender Policy Council are defined in terms of the needs of women and girls but must be broadened to include gender minorities. This council’s nomenclature indicates a willingness to break from the gender binary that has made previous federal gender equity groups exclusive of underserved gender minorities.
The council is also charged with broader policy involvement than preceding groups; this expansion of influence must be matched by an expansion of its representation to effectively and inclusively advise on gender policy initiatives in the Biden Administration.
Even fulfilling the already stated mission of the council necessitates expanded representation; “women” and “girls” are often grouped together, but the voices of youth are too often erased in policy initiatives that directly impact them. People do not suddenly gain political awareness when the clock strikes midnight on their 18th birthday. Youth voices have driven change in the U.S. through activism like the March for Our Lives and United We Dream movements, but the Biden Administration’s promise to advance the health of girls is an opportunity to formally engage young people in the political process. Fostering direct representation of girls’ voices is essential to present their perspectives and priorities in U.S. policy.
The U.S. has a long way to go on gender equity in every field and the road to progress has been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The White House Gender Policy Council will need to simultaneously address long-term gender equity needs in both domestic and foreign policy while also responding to the unique, immediate crises of the pandemic. An intentionally inclusive mission and recognition of disparities among overarching groups are necessary to ensure the council successfully and meaningfully advances gender equity in U.S. policy.
Featured Photo caption: President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris formed a Gender Policy Council, which aims to advance the interests of women and girls across foreign and domestic areas. Photo Courtesy of Flickr.