President Obama announced the creation of the White House Council on Women and Girls on Wednesday, to "provide a coordinated federal response to the challenges confronted by women and girls." It's a great step, recreating an office that existed during the Clinton administration but was dissolved under Bush. But the word seen often along with buzz about the new council is "symbolic." So that begs the question: will the council have real authority to bring change for women?
In his remarks, the president noted how proud he is that the first bill he signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Act, and he emphasized that issues like family leave and pay equity are family issues and economic issues that affect everyone. Goals for the first year include engaging all executive agencies in the dialogue regarding women's economic security, to prevent violence against women, and to work toward greater work-life balance. Lofty goals, good intent.
The council will be under the umbrella of the new administration and members will be comprised of the Cabinet, so one way to give it authority would be for the administration to provide an open participation component similar to what has been envisioned for other projects coming out of the Office of the President. In addition, the council could push for a bipartisan commission on women to further explore key issues for women beyond the walls of the White House, engaging leaders from a variety of sectors and providing an easier vehicle for participatory expression on key topics. A commission by its nature is very different from a council.
Here are some points to consider: a commission, launched either from the Office of the President or Congress, could potentially reach out in a much broader manner using an online component that would contain less constraints than the council itself. As women comprise the majority of social media participants online, we are an ideal fit for developing a participatory environment where women could come together and devise real solutions. And a commission, working in conjunction with the new Council on Women and Girls, could take a long term view, extended beyond one four-year term.
The new White House Council on Women and Girls represents a phenomenal opportunity for greater engagement of women in the political process and could become the conduit for a variety of positive programs for women. If it's looked upon as a means and not an end, many more doors could yet be opened.