President Barack Obama is the first sitting president to declare himself a feminist. He made the declaration in an essay he wrote for Glamour to celebrate his 55th birthday, concluding with the rallying cry, "when everybody is equal, we are all more free."
"This is an extraordinary time to be a woman. The progress we’ve made in the past 100 years, 50 years, and, yes, even the past eight years has made life significantly better for my daughters than it was for my grandmothers," Obama wrote. "And I say that not just as president but also as a feminist."
Obama acknowledged that "the most important people in my life have always been women," spoke at length about the way his mother and grandmother influenced his upbringing, and critiqued the "subtle and not-so-subtle social cues" that impact the way young women think, learn and grow. "Growing up without a dad, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who I was, how the world perceived me, and what kind of man I wanted to be," he wrote. "It’s easy to absorb all kinds of messages from society about masculinity and come to believe that there’s a right way and a wrong way to be a man. But as I got older, I realized that my ideas about being a tough guy or cool guy just weren’t me. They were a manifestation of my youth and insecurity. Life became a lot easier when I simply started being myself."
Stereotypes about "acceptable" male and female behavior, wrote Obama, keep young girls "boxed in," affecting the way they view themselves from a young age. Obama drew upon Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to run for a major party's presidential nomination, who he called one of his "heroines," to spearhead the issue: "She once said, 'The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, ‘It’s a girl.’”
In what might be his essay's most poignant section, Obama acknowledged that his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama, was under more pressure while their two daughters, Sasha and Malia, were growing up than he was. "I’ve seen how Michelle has balanced the demands of a busy career and raising a family. Like many working mothers, she worried about the expectations and judgments of how she should handle the trade-offs, knowing that few people would question my choices," he wrote. "[And] the reality was that when our girls were young, I was often away from home serving in the state legislature,
while also juggling my teaching responsibilities as a law professor. I can look back now and see that, while I helped out, it was usually on my schedule and on my terms. The burden disproportionately and unfairly fell on Michelle." The presidency, he says, has cut his commute down to 45 seconds––the amount of time it takes for him to walk from the living room to the Oval Office––and he couldn't be more grateful: "As a result, I’ve been able to spend a lot more time watching my daughters grow up into smart, funny, kind, wonderful young women."
Women are "leading in every sector, from sports to space, from Hollywood to the Supreme Court," wrote Obama, but "there’s still a lot of work we need to do to improve the prospects of women and girls here and around the world." While he pledged to continue to advocate for equal pay and reproductive rights, he admitted that "the most important change may be the toughest of all—and that’s changing ourselves." Society needs "to keep changing the attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive, that criticizes our daughters for speaking out and our sons for shedding a tear,” he wrote. “We need to keep changing the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality and rewards men for theirs. We need to keep changing the attitude that permits the routine harassment of women, whether they’re walking down the street or daring to go online. We need to keep changing the attitude that teaches men to feel threatened by the presence and success of women.”
Identifying as a feminist, said the president, is important “because now that’s what they [Sasha and Malia] expect of all men.” His declaration "delighted" Brenda Weber, the professor and the chairwoman of the gender studies department at Indiana University. “Those are all pretty radical statements in terms of a politician at that level of influence,” she said. Glamour editor Cindi Leive agreed. “It did strike me as this very modern moment, something that we wouldn’t have heard probably from any other president, but honestly we would not have heard before this year,” Leive said. “I do think the embrace of the term feminism by men as well as women has really been on the rise.”
You can read President Obama's complete essay here.