By Sarah Barnes
The significance of the Biden-Harris administration for the world’s women and girls cannot be overstated. The current status of women and girls is grim. The COVID-19 pandemic and four years of dangerous policies designed to strip women and girls of their reproductive and economic autonomy and punish them—first for their biology, and second for their gender—have slowed and even reversed decades of progress toward gender equity. Systemic racism and policies meant to further exclude and disenfranchise minority communities have targeted women of color with tragic results.
Long have women (and allies) chanted for gender equity, for an end to men making laws controlling women’s reproductive rights, for full participation in all aspects of society, and for supportive domestic and foreign policies. For these goals to be realized, women and people of color must have a seat at the table and a voice in decision-making. The elected Biden-Harris administration appears to be setting itself up to change history with their “aggressive and comprehensive plan to further women’s economic and physical security and ensure that women can fully exercise their civil rights.” They aren’t shying away from the realities of 2020 America—they are facing them with what may just be a watershed moment for the U.S. government—gender parity in the President-elect’s Cabinet.
Historically, the status of women and girls has been disappointing at best and devastating at its worst. Currently, one in three women worldwide will experience gender-based violence in her lifetime, approximately 130 million girls between the ages of 6 and 17 are not in school, and one in five girls are likely to marry before she turns 18. Some 218 million women in low- and middle-income countries have an unmet need for modern contraception, leading to more than 35 million unsafe abortions each year. Women continue to make 77 cents to every dollar men make and in addition to their paid work and the challenges against them, women do at least twice as much unpaid care work as men, including housework, child care, and elder care.
Over the past four years, sexual and reproductive health and rights were, at a minimum, neglected, and more often, systematically challenged and undermined by the Trump administration. As a result, women, families, and nations suffered. For example, the Trump administration cut millions of dollars in funding from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN agency focused on reproductive and maternal health care. The Trump administration has also undertaken an “unprecedented expansion” of the Global Gag Rule (also known as the Mexico City Policy), which prohibits non-governmental organizations receiving U.S. federal assistance from providing abortion services. This expansion has had “devastating impacts” both on individuals seeking health services and on countries’ public health systems as a whole.
Pre-pandemic, women held more jobs in the U.S. economy than men. Women still faced wage gaps and were more likely to hold part-time positions, but they were making substantial progress in the U.S. workforce. However, the economic fallout of the pandemic has landed more heavily on women, jeopardizing this progress. In September 2020, six months after the onset of COVID-19 in America and the related shutdowns, 865,000 women left the workforce (four times the number of men), with Black and Latina women being disproportionately affected. In December 2020, the U.S. economy lost 140,000 jobs. Every single one of them was lost by a woman. And actually, the numbers are worse. 156,000 women lost their jobs in December, but men gained 16,000 jobs, bringing the overall loss to 140,000. Even to a gender equity novice, such a stark contrast clearly illustrates that policies and protections for women are grossly inadequate.
Since the early days of his campaign, President-elect Biden has emphasized the importance of, and commitment to, building an administration that looks like America. He began fulfilling this promise when he selected Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as his Vice President, and he has continued this trajectory with the selection of his Cabinet. “This Cabinet will be the most representative of any Cabinet in American history,” Biden declared at a December event. “We’ll have a Cabinet of barrier breakers, a Cabinet of firsts.” So far, Biden’s nominations reflect his words. He and Harris have included a historic number of firsts in their lists of nominated cabinet members, including former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the first openly LGBTQI+ Cabinet appointee; Janet Yellen and Avril Haines, the first women to hold the role of Treasury Secretary and Director of National Intelligence, respectively; and retired Army General Lloyd Austin and Michael Regan, the first Black men to serve as Defense Secretary and Head of the EPA, to name only a few. In total, Biden has nominated a record-breaking 14 people of color and 12 women to Cabinet-level posts. If all of these nominees are confirmed, Biden’s Cabinet could also be the first in history to have at least as many women as men.
There are more firsts to come, and their impact promises to be powerful. Diversity of perspectives and lived experiences leads to policies that better meet the diverse needs of the American people and the world. Having Alejandro Mayorkas, a child of immigrants, head the Department of Homeland Security is significant, given the growing mistreatment of undocumented immigrants under the Trump administration. Having Representative Deb Haaland, an Indigenous woman, as the Secretary of the Interior is especially notable because the Department of the Interior determines policy for federally-owned natural resources and tribal lands. And having a woman head the Treasury could bring a different policy perspective that may be especially beneficial given the impacts of COVID on women’s work and economic standing.
So what can we expect from Biden’s first 100 days?Beyond his Cabinet selections, President-elect Biden has a strong record working for global women’s rights. As vice president, he worked closely with President Obama to address gender-based violence across the world. They created the first U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally; the first U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security; as well as the first U.S. Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls. Also, in 2007, Biden introduced the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA), which offered a comprehensive approach to gender-based violence globally.
By expanding protection for survivors of gender-based violence and sexual assault, recognizing the importance of sexual and reproductive health and rights, and increasing women’s economic security and political participation the Biden administration will, in its first 100 Days, begin to improve the status of women and girls worldwide. As we approach Day 1 of the Biden-Harris Era, the groundwork has been laid for historic change in our nation and a reorienting of American leadership worldwide.
Sources: CNBC, CNN, Congress.gov, FiveThirtyEight, Human Rights Watch, the Guttmacher Institute, Joe Biden for President, New York Magazine, NBC News, the New York Times, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States Department of State, the World Bank.
Photo Credit: Celebration in Black Lives Matters Plaza after Joe Biden is announced as the winner. courtesy of flickr user Miki Jourdan.