Much is being made of President Barack Obama’s remarks Tuesday on the role sexism plays in this election. Campaigning for Hillary Clinton at a rally in Columbus, Ohio, the president specifically addressed “the guys out there,” asking them to “kinda look inside yourself” and be introspective about why they remain resistant to voting for his former secretary of state. He suggested that part of the problem, which we don’t always talk about, is that many still have a hard time with the basic notion of women in power.
“When a guy is ambitious and out in the public arena and working hard, well that’s okay,” Obama said, “but when a woman suddenly does it, suddenly you’re all like, ‘Well, why’s she doing that?’”
Media reaction to these comments was fairly dramatic. “Obama Says Sexism to Blame for Close Presidential Race,” reported NBC News, probably overdoing it. “Obama Accuses Men Who Aren’t Voting for Clinton of Sexism,” the Washington Free Beacon declared, definitely overdoing it. It was, in fact, Marie Claire, a women’s magazine not known for its political coverage, that had the perfect takeaway: “Obama Reminds Everyone That He’s a Feminist Hero by Asking Men to Reflect on Sexism Before Voting.”
History will remember Obama for a wide variety of accomplishments on behalf of marginalized communities. He broke a race barrier as the first black president. He presided over—and used policy to hasten—a remarkable acceptance of gay Americans in national life. Now, in 2016, more than any other year he’s been president, Obama is assuming the mantle of feminist-in-chief, talking more openly than ever about the need for gender equality. Maybe it’s not surprising Obama would make this push while laying the groundwork for the first female occupant of the Oval Office, but his efforts will have benefits beyond the likely election of Clinton. He’s offering a valuable new template for masculinity, not just in politics but in American culture more broadly.
The president made headlines for his feminism more than once this summer. In June, he hosted the first-ever White House Summit on the United State of Women, where he declared, “I may be a little grayer than I was eight years ago, but this is what a feminist looks like.” Obama then gave an in-depth speech on the progress of women through history, the policies his administration was pursuing to aid their pursuit of equality and, critically, the ways in which culture needs to change to that end.
“We need to keep changing the attitude that raises our girls to be demure, and our boys to be assertive,” he said, “that criticizes our daughters for speaking out, and our sons for shedding a tear. We need to change the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality but gives men a pat on the back for theirs.”
Obama made an even more valuable contribution to the discourse a couple of months later. In August, in what The New York Times called “his most extensive remarks about feminism,” the president penned a 1,500-word essay for Glamour magazine that did something more important than enumerating the goals for equality: It made clear that men play a vital role in achieving them.
“It is absolutely men’s responsibility to fight sexism too,” Obama wrote. “And as spouses and partners and boyfriends, we need to work hard and be deliberate about creating truly equal relationships.”
Indeed, in Columbus, the president referred to the first lady as “not just my equal but my superior,” in a way that felt not patronizing but authentic. (There has been in-depth coverage of how he and Michelle endeavor to achieve equality in their marriage—no easy talk when one partner is president of the United States.)
Obama’s Columbus remarks were similar to what he told comedian Samantha Bee a day earlier—that Clinton, because she’s a woman, will earn her criticism. “She’s tired,” he said, anticipating the attacks on her. “She’s moody. She’s being emotional.” He also expects her to face a familiar double-standard. “When men are ambitious, it’s just taken for granted. ‘Well, of course, they should be ambitious,’” he said. “When women are ambitious, ‘Why?’ That theme, I think, will continue throughout her presidency, and it’s contributed to this notion that somehow she is hiding something.”
Obama’s male feminism has become profound and momentous, in ways that will have a lasting impact on American society. He has set a high bar for his successors. Clinton won’t have trouble meeting it, of course, but Obama’s words will pressure all future presidents to stand up for women—even if, someday, they’re men again.