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Remarks by United States President Barack Obama at Signing of an Executive Order Creating the White House Council on Women and Girls

Location: Washington, DC



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MS. JARRETT: Thank you, thank you. Thank you very much. And good afternoon, everyone.

To our -- yeah, good afternoon -- to our first lady, Michelle Obama, to the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, to Senator Boxer, to the members of the Congressional Women's Caucus, to my fellow Cabinet members and staff and team from the White House and to so many terrific women and a few men in the audience -- (laughter) -- we welcome you all.

International Women's Month gives us the opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of women. Today, we take an important next step in addressing the challenges faced by women and girls both here and abroad. Shortly, President Obama will create the first White House Council on Women and Girls, and I am very proud that he has asked me to chair the council. (Cheers, applause.)

This council will provide a coordinated federal response to the many of the challenges faced by women and girls. Each federal agency will consider how its policies and programs impact women and girls. We will listen to a broad range of women's voices and take into account women's needs in order to ensure that the federal government is working for women, for girls and for all of us.

Today is really about creating opportunities. As I grew up, I was fortunate enough to have two parents who loved me, who sacrificed for me and who supported me each and every day along life's path. And I'm particularly delighted that my mother is here to enjoy this moment. Hey, Mom. (Laughs.) (Applause.)

I then went on to raise my daughter as a single mom, trying, as many of us do, to balance the many demands of a career, being a mom, and trying to do everything at once. But I was fortunate to have the support of my parents, my family and my friends. They were there for me to lean on. And I learned firsthand, to borrow from Secretary Clinton, that it really does take a village to raise a child.

My daughter has grown into an exceptional young woman, and I'm very, very proud of her. And as I take on this new challenge, I want to ensure that this council helps to create a broader support network for all other women and girls, and that -- so that every young girl has the very same opportunities that I was given and that I have given to my daughter.

There are so many talented and accomplished women with us today who have demonstrated what happens when we make an investment in women and girls. We have Ana Velasquez-Gonzalez (sic), a wonderful teacher at Banneker High School right here in Washington, D.C. (Applause.)

We are also joined by a successful small-business owner, Teresa Ging, the owner of Swiss Bliss (sic/Sugar Bliss) Cake Boutique, from our hometown of Chicago. Teresa was helped along the way by the federally funded Women's Business Development Center with counseling and financing. Welcome, Teresa. (Applause.) (Laughs.)

For, you see, in this White House, we all believe that it is our responsibility to continue the work of helping all of our citizens fully reach their potential and their dreams.

I am pleased to announce that Tina Tchen, the director of the Office of Public Liaison, will serve as the council's executive director. Tina? (Cheers, applause.) (Laughs.) Tina, also from Chicago -- (laughter) -- has an impressive record of accomplishments in the not-for-profit and (private ?) sector on issues that are important to women and families.

She was a founding board member of the Young Women's Leadership Charter School in Chicago, a school dedicated to educating young girls in science, technology and leadership. Under Tina's leadership, the council will partner with stakeholders across the country, finding solutions in innovative practices to enhance the council's work.

I'm very grateful to the president for creating this council. The lives and opportunities of our nation's women and girls will be right -- will be much brighter as a result of his leadership.

So, without any further ado, please join me in welcoming the president of the United States, Barack Obama. (Applause.)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Hello! Thank you. Thank you very much. Please, have a seat. (Applause continues.) Thank you! Thank you so much.

Well, today, as we continue our celebration of International Women's History Month, I'm proud to sign this executive order establishing the women's -- the White House Council on Women and Girls. It's a council with a mission that dates back to our founding, to fulfill the promise of our democracy for all our people.

I sign this order not just as a president but as a son, a grandson, a husband and a father, because growing up I saw my mother put herself through school and follow her passion for helping others. But I also saw how she struggled to raise me and my sister on her own, worrying about how she'd pay the bills and educate herself and provide for us.

I saw my grandmother work her way up to become one of the first women bank vice presidents in the state of Hawaii, but I also saw how she hit a glass ceiling, how men no more qualified than she was kept moving up the corporate ladder ahead of her.

I've seen Michelle, the rock of the Obama family -- (soft laughter) -- juggling work and parenting with more skill and grace than anybody that I know. But I also saw how it tore at her, at times; how sometimes when she was with the girls, she was worrying about work, and when she was at work, she worrying about the girls. It's a feeling that I share every day.

In so many ways, the stories of the women in my life reflect the broader story of women in this country, a story of both unyielding progress and also untapped potential.

Today, women make up a growing share of our workforce and the majority of students in our colleges and our law schools. Women are breaking barriers in every field, from science and business to athletics and the armed forces. Women are serving at the highest levels of my administration. And we have Madame Speaker presiding over our House of Representatives. (Cheers, applause.) I had the privilege of participating in a historic campaign with a historic candidate, who we now have the privilege of calling Madame Secretary.

But at the same time, when women still earn just 78 cents for every dollar men make, when one in four women still experiences domestic violence in their lifetimes, when women are more than half of our population but just 17 percent of our Congress, when women are 49 percent of the workforce but only 3 percent of our Fortune 500 CEOs, when these inequalities stubbornly persist in this country, in this century, then I think we need to ask ourselves some hard questions.

I think we need to take a hard look at where we're falling short and who we're leaving out and what that means for the prosperity and the vitality of our nation. And I want to be very clear. These issues are not just women's issues.

When women make less than men for the same work, it hurts families, who find themselves with less income and have to work harder just to get by. When a job doesn't offer family leave, that also hurts men, who want to help care for a new baby or an ailing parent. When there's not affordable childcare, that hurts children, who wind up in second-rate care or spending afternoons alone in front of the television set.

And when any of our citizens cannot fulfill their potential, because of factors that have nothing to do with their talent, their character, their work ethic, that says something about the state of our democracy. It says something about whether we're honoring those words put on paper, more than two centuries ago, whether we're doing our part, like generations before us, to breathe new life into them, in our time.

That above all is the true purpose of our government, not to guarantee our success but to ensure that in America, all this are still possible for all people; not to solve all our problems but to ensure that we all have the chance to pursue our version of happiness, to give our daughters the chance to achieve as greatly as the women who join us today.

That's the impact our government can have.

It's the impact of a Health and Human Services Department that funds research by women like Dr. Nina Federoff, a biotechnology and life science pioneer -- (applause) -- who won the National Medal of Science in 2006.

It's the impact of a Defense Department that works to recruit and promote women -- women so that women like Sergeant Major Michele Jones, who was the Army's highest ranking enlisted woman before she retired, can strengthen our military with their leadership. (Applause.)

It's the impact of a Department of Education that enforces Title IX, so athletes like -- (cheers, applause) -- so athletes like Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes and Lisa Leslie -- (cheers, applause) -- have a level playing field to compete and to win.

It's the impact of a White House and a Congress that fight for legislation like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act -- (cheers, applause) -- so that all women can get paid what they deserve. I'm very proud this was the very first bill that I signed into law, and that's why I'm establishing this council, not just to continue efforts like these, but to enhance them.

The council will be composed of the heads of every Cabinet and Cabinet-level agency and will meet on a regular basis. We have many of those Cabinet members here. Some of the men showed up. We put them in the second row. (Laughter, applause.) But they're going to be fighting -- they're going to be part of this council. And it's going to meet on a regular basis.

Its purpose is very simple: to ensure that each of the agencies in which they're charged takes into account the needs of women and girls in the policies they draft, the programs they create, the legislation they support. It's not enough to only have individual women's offices at individual agencies or only have one office in the White House. Rather, as Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once said, in our government responsibility for the advancement of women is not the job of any one agency; it's the job of all of them. (Applause.) And she should know. She helped lead an interagency women's initiative during the Clinton administration.

At the same time, given the critical importance of its work, this council must have strong leadership from the White House and direct accountability to me.

And that's why I'm appointing Valerie Jarrett, one of my closest advisers and most senior members of my administration, to lead it. Tina Tchen, another senior member of my White House staff, will serve as the council's executive director.

In the end, while many of the challenges women and girls face are new, the work of this council is not. It's been with us for generations. Frances Perkins, who was President Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of Labor and the first woman to serve in the Cabinet -- a great hero of the New Deal -- described it well when she said, "I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered, and so establish the rights of others long hence and far distant in geography to sit in the high seats." To sit in the high seats.

That is why I'm standing here today, because of what my mother and grandmother did for me, because of their hard work and sacrifice and unflagging love. That's what Michelle's doing right now, thinking every day about making sure that Malia and Sasha have the same opportunities as anybody's sons do.

It's why so many of us are here today, because of the women who came before us, who were determined to see us sit in the high seats -- women who reached for the ballot and raised families and traveled long, lonely roads to be the first in the board room or in the courtroom or on the battlefield or on the factory floor; women who cracked and shattered those glass ceilings, so that my daughters, and all of our sons and daughters, could dream a little bigger and reach a little higher.

So now it's up to us to carry that work forward, to ensure that our daughters and granddaughters have no limits on their dreams, no obstacles to their achievements, and that they have opportunities their mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers never dreamed of.

That's the purpose of this council. Those are the priorities of my presidency. And I look forward to working with all of you to fulfill them in the months and years to come.

All right, so I'm going to go sign this thing. Thank you very much. (Applause.)


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