On Wednesday night, for the first time in American history, two women sat behind the president of the United States as he addressed Congress. President Biden was joined by Vice President Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. To many, the image was symbolic of the vision the president outlined in his “agenda for women,” in which he pledged to bring American women closer to equality.
At the outset of Biden’s term, The Lily asked leading advocates and experts on child care, equal pay, health equity, LGBTQ rights and gender violence to weigh in on what we could expect from the Biden administration.
With 100 days in office now under Biden’s belt, we touched base with them to evaluate the president’s performance.
Praise for the president’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and the economy was near universal among the people we spoke to, who lauded the speed of vaccinations (to date, nearly 305.5 million doses have been distributed, with 99.7 million Americans fully vaccinated) and recent economic gains which show women are beginning to recover jobs lost during the pandemic.
This was always going to be the top priority of the administration, said policy analyst Matt Robison. “There’s a daisy chain of logic,” he said. “Get on top of the pandemic so that we can get the economy going again, so that we reverse all the disproportionate impacts on women.”
The focus on women and racial equity — something Biden pledged would be baked into every action the federal government takes — was also apparent in this year’s stimulus package, said Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center.
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, passed in March, Martin explained, contained “historic investments in child care," which has long been an issue at the forefront of many advocate agendas. It includes a child tax credit, which will send up to $3,600 per child this year to millions of families. It also includes $39 billion to help rebuild a devastated child-care industry.
The release of the American Families Plan on Wednesday, a partner package to the American Jobs Plan released in late March, builds on those investments, Martin said.
The package has been widely anticipated by women’s economic advocates for weeks. Among them is Julie Kashen, director for women’s economic justice at the Century Foundation. She highlighted the plan’s universal preschool, child care and paid family leave proposals as transformational policies for women — particularly women of color.
“This idea that not only could you have a government that supports caregivers also being in the workforce, but that really creates some ease around that? That’s kind of where the magic lies,” Kashen said.
It is also in line with what Biden promised on the campaign trail, though the timeline of some of these measures has raised some eyebrows: The administration isn’t guaranteeing access to 12 weeks of paid family medical leave until a decade into the program.
So, too, has the cost of the plan. The White House said it will aim to pay for the $1.8 trillion families proposal by increasing taxes on corporations and top income earners — proposals that are popular with the general public, but are nonstarters for Republicans. Earlier this month, there was also some alarm that child care was separated from the initial infrastructure package, which came in at $2 trillion.
Michelle Holder, a labor economist and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, notes there was another missed opportunity: Out of the first jobs plan, “transportation infrastructure” is expected to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, which, based on current data, will go “overwhelmingly to men, primarily non-Hispanic White men."
With so much money at stake, Holder says she would have liked to see “modest allocation” set aside specifically for training women to enter these jobs.
As for the current economic recovery, a recent NWLC analysis noted that despite promising March job gains, women would have to regain nearly a half million jobs per month for 15 months to undo the damage of the coronavirus recession.
Still, the Biden administration has effectively shifted the terms of the debate around the economy and caregiving by considering them — along with health care — as key components of infrastructure, noted Martin.
Addressing health disparities was also a key part of Biden’s “women’s agenda.” Here, the White House has made some important initial steps, said Tina Sherman, an executive at the national advocacy group MomsRising.
Sherman has had her eyes on how the administration would address Black maternal health, an issue Harris championed when she was a senator. The United States has the highest maternal mortality rates among wealthy nations, with Black women dying from pregnancy complications at rates two to three times higher than White women.
“When we focus on Black maternal health, the first thing that really comes to my mind is, representation matters,” Sherman said.
This includes $200 million for bias training for health-care providers, as well as nearly $50 million increased funding for the Department of Health and Human Services’ civil rights division.
Sherman also pointed out that, earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared racism a major threat to public health, a move which would spur the medical community to substantively address the impacts of racism on the American public.
In its first 100 days, the Biden administration has initiated a 90-day independent review on the issue of sexual assault in the military. The stimulus bill also included specific attention to survivors of intimate partner violence, with $180 million designated for domestic violence services and $198 million for sexual violence services like shelters and counseling.
“That’s a fund that usually gets funding in the double-digit millions, not the triple-digit millions,” said Tina Tchen, president and CEO of Time’s Up.
Tens of millions of dollars were also earmarked for Native tribes to support domestic violence survivors on Indigenous land, as well as for services that address community-specific needs, like non-English outreach to survivors who are immigrants.
Tchen says she is similarly encouraged by the announcement to reexamine the Trump-era Title IX rule changes, which gave more power to those accused of sexual assault on college campuses, noting that the process to change these kinds of rules is typically lengthy.
But passing the Violence Against Women Act, one of Biden’s signature legislative feats as a senator, will be challenging, said Danny Weiss, the Century Foundation’s director of government affairs. The bill has languished since 2018, and it’s unclear what its future could be in 2021 and beyond.
The updated bill closes the “boyfriend loophole”— which allows non-married partners to purchase firearms, even if they’ve been convicted of domestic abuse — as well as another provision that allows non-Native abusers to evade accountability for sexual assault if it happens on Indigenous territory.
The revised bill would also expand protections to transgender women, said Tchen, who added that their current exclusion from VAWA is “discrimination that cannot be allowed to stand.”
In his speech Wednesday night, Biden urged Congress to reauthorize the bill and close those existing loopholes, but Weiss sees a limit to what can be done to push the bill forward.
Because VAWA restricts gun ownership, Republican senators are particularly averse to supporting the bill.
“Unless there’s overwhelming pressure to push 10 GOP senators,” to meet the majority threshold needed in the Senate, Weiss said it’s likely the bill would not be passed.
Other core issues championed by Biden will need to go through Congress, where they face steep opposition from Senate Republicans.
Weiss predicts that the Biden administration will only have time to propose one more major legislative package to Congress before attention shifts to the 2022 midterms.
Considering the vaccine rollout and the ongoing coronavirus rescue and relief efforts, the administration is moving “incredibly quickly,” noted Weiss. Still, there’s pressure from advocates to do even more, and to do it at “lightning speed.”
Some advocates would also like to see the Biden administration be more bold on pushing for a repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which Biden notably reversed his stance on during his 2020 campaign. The amendment, tacked onto the yearly appropriations bill, bans the government from funding organizations that offer abortion services.
Kimberly Inez McGuire, executive director of the advocacy group Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity, noted that the amendment bars many marginalized people — those who are Black, Latino, working class or living in rural areas — from having a safe abortion.
“We have not seen the bold leadership we wanted in word nor in deed,” said Inez McGuire, who wants to see the Biden administration put pressure on Congress to repeal the Hyde Amendment once a new budget is put forward.
She also sees opportunities for the Biden administration to be more aggressive in supporting LGBTQ communities, particularly transgender people, who have been targeted with discriminatory bills in state legislatures throughout the country. Many of the bills will restrict transgender youth’s ability to participate in sports, as well as limit their access to the health care needed for transitions.
While Biden “set the tone” early for his administration by signing an executive order barring discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual identity, there are other steps the Biden administration can take to protect LGBTQ people, said Inez McGuire, such as fighting for greater access to gender-affirming health care in both the public and private spheres, as well as ensuring that sex education is more comprehensive.
While she believes the administration has come up short in these areas, Inez McGuire is encouraged by its willingness to listen to young people of color on these issues.
“The administration has shown a willingness to the community and the ability to course correct,” Inez McGuire said. “You better believe that reproductive justice advocates and young people will be, metaphorically, knocking on that White House door.”