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A Signature With the First Lady's Hand in It

By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 30, 2009

It seemed to be all about Lilly Ledbetter at the White House yesterday -- her name was enshrined in history, affixed to the first piece of legislation signed by President Obama. He presented the former Goodyear plant supervisor with a pen he used at the East Room signing ceremony and said, "This one's for Lilly."

But the day belonged to Michelle Obama, too. She wasn't on the stage with her husband, but she was there watching, and her stamp was on the new fair-pay law that Democrats have pushed since 2007. Its signing represented a concrete example of the first lady's interest in domestic policy, women's advocates say, and signaled her determination to push the concerns of working women and families to the forefront of national debate.

"I think she has the potential to be an extraordinary first lady and advocate for these issues," said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, who was at the White House ceremony. "She has an enormous opportunity to raise these issues because people are so interested in what she has to say. And the power of her voice is so great."

For feminists, it was clear that the great freeze-out of the Bush years was finally over. Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, sat in the front row at the signing and later attended a reception Mrs. Obama hosted for Ledbetter and some 150 advocates of women's causes and civil rights. "It's very important to have a first lady who is so strong for these issues, and so informed," Smeal said.

Those familiar with the Obamas certainly give the president his due -- he's been pushing women's rights since his days as an Illinois state legislator -- but he's been advised by what Smeal called "very strong women," his wife chief among them. The couple worked in tandem promoting Ledbetter's cause -- he backing the bill in the Senate, she raising the issue on the campaign trail.

Obama said he signed the bill not only in honor of Ledbetter, "but in honor of those who came before her. Women like my grandmother who worked in a bank all her life, and even after she hit that glass ceiling, kept getting up and giving her best every day."

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act will give workers alleging pay discrimination more time to take their cases to court. It effectively reverses a U.S. Supreme Court decision that limited Ledbetter's ability to sue after she discovered that Goodyear had been paying higher salaries to her male counterparts for nearly 20 years.

The Ledbetter bill passed the Senate last week after dying in a close vote last year. Its swift revival gave both the president and his wife an opportunity to show their support, materially and symbolically.

"I don't recall any first lady getting off to this quick a start" on issues, said historian Myra G. Gutin, author of "The President's Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century." "I think [this legislation] is a natural extension of what we may see her do in the White House."

The State Dining Room reception was the first lady's first official White House event -- not including the traditional open-house welcome she and her husband staged after the inauguration. Guests noshed on apricot coffee cake, cherry orange scones and fruit. The president dropped by, but his wife did the official speaking, along with Ledbetter. The first lady also worked the room, dressed in a dark purple suit, white pearls and purple pumps.

Ledbetter endorsed the president at a campaign event hosted by Mrs. Obama in Richmond in September, and she took the pre-inaugural train with them from Philadelphia. Mrs. Obama described Ledbetter yesterday as "one of my favorite people in the whole wide world . . .

"In traveling across the country over the past two years, Lilly's story and the broader issue of equal pay was a concern voiced over and over and over again. It was a top and critical priority for women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds -- older women, younger women, women with disabilities -- and their families," Mrs. Obama told the crowd at the reception. "This legislation is an important step forward, particularly at a time when so many families are facing economic insecurity and instability.''

It's historically true that first ladies shape public perceptions of the presidency as much as their husbands -- not just through their personalities and fashion choices but through the causes they support. So far Mrs. Obama has announced a three-pronged policy agenda: "supporting military families, helping working women balance career and family, and encouraging national service," her office said in a statement.

Nancy Reagan launched a "Just Say No" campaign against drug abuse. Rosalynn Carter focused on mental health. Barbara Bush sup ported literacy, and Laura Bush was also a passionate advocate of reading and books. Hillary Clinton chose health care. She came to the first lady's office with an impressive professional résumé, including a law degree, as did Mrs. Obama.

"People wanted to see what Hillary was going to do," Gutin said. "They want to see what Michelle is going to do."

Yesterday's signing ceremony closely echoed an event 16 years ago, at the dawn of the Clinton presidency. On a mild early-February day in the Rose Garden, Bill Clinton signed the first bill of his presidency, at a ceremony his wife attended: The Family and Medical Leave Act, which guaranteed that employees could take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for events like the birth of a child. Similar legislation had been vetoed by his predecessor; Mrs. Clinton was among those who lobbied on Capitol Hill in the days before the bill won congressional approval, according to news reports.

Mrs. Obama held several round tables on women's issues during the campaign, where she heard women voice concerns about child care, other family issues and the economy. "The round tables were a reflection of conversations with her girlfriends," Katie McCormick Lelyveld, a spokeswoman for the first lady, said yesterday. "She relayed those concerns to her husband."

Earlier in the morning, the president and his wife attended to their own work-life balance. They went to a second-grade class presentation at Sidwell Friends School's lower-school campus in Bethesda, which their 7-year-old daughter, Sasha, attends.

Sasha and her peers are studying Native American history and culture.

"Each child did research on an American Indian topic and then presented their work to other students and parents," school spo kesman Ellis Turner said. The lesson included a breakfast featuring Native foods.

Staff writer DeNeen L. Brown contributed to this report.

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