The Washington Post

Obama hones message to women in commencement speech


President Obama waves after speaking at the Barnard College's 120th Commencement ceremony May 14 in New York.. (SHANNON STAPLETON/REUTERS)

President Obama, delivering a commencement address to nearly 600 graduates of Barnard College, urged young women Monday to strive for leadership positions and become politically involved.

“You are now poised to make this the century where women shape not only their own destiny, but the destiny of this nation and of this world,” Obama said at the women’s college.

“Don’t just get involved. Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table,” he told the graduates.

Obama used the speech to hone his message to women in a year in which their issues have been front and center in politics. The graduates gave him a rousing welcome and greeted his speech with cheers and applause.

The Obama reelection campaign has intensively targeted female voters in the wake of national debates over contraception and working mothers, trying to draw a distinction between the president’s beliefs and those of presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Polls show that Obama maintains a wide lead over Romney among female voters.

During his remarks, Obama invoked his daughters — 13-year-old Malia and 10-year-old Sasha — to emphasize that he has a personal stake in the debate over legal protections to ensure that women earn salaries equal to men’s and receive health-care benefits that include contraception coverage.

“We know we are better off when women are treated fairly and equally in every aspect of American life, whether it’s the salary you earn or the health decisions you make,” said Obama, who wore a pale blue gown with black stripes and a red sash around his neck.

“How far your leadership takes this country, how far it takes this world, well, that will be up to you,” he added. “You’ve got to want it. It will not be handed to you.”

Obama pointedly mentioned female Cabinet members, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis, and he encouraged the graduates to pursue leadership positions, whether in politics, business or other fields.

He also talked about his personal history, being raised by a single mother, and he praised first lady Michelle Obama, noting that she was a successful lawyer when they met.

He touted the Lilly Ledbetter law, his administration’s first legislative victory, which allows women more time to pursue legal recourse for pay equal to that of their male colleagues.

The president personally requested the speaking appearance in February, and Barnard President Debora Spar made room by asking New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson, who had been scheduled to speak, to step aside.

Obama graduated from Columbia College, located across the street, and his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, attended Barnard.

After Obama’s address, he taped an appearance on the ABC talk show “The View” for a segment that will air Tuesday in which he discussed his recently announced support for same-sex marriage.

Obama also raised money for his campaign, stopping at two New York City fundraising events — one hosted by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and openly gay singer Ricky Martin, and the other at the home of Hamilton “Tony” James, president of the Blackstone Group, which is one of the nation’s largest private equity firms.

Two hundred guests paid $5,000 or more each at the first event, and about 60 paid the campaign maximum of $35,800 at the second.

“I want everyone treated fairly in this country,” Obama said, speaking about his support for same-sex marriage at the first event. “We have never gone wrong when we’ve extended rights and responsibilities to everybody. That doesn’t weaken families, that strengthens families.”

Romney delivered a commencement address at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., on Saturday in which he emphasized that he believes marriage is between “one man and one woman.”

Obama’s stop at James’s home came a week after JPMorgan announced a $2 billion loss from risky practices, and it came on the same day that Obama’s campaign released a television advertisement attacking Romney’s record on job creation during his tenure at his private equity firm, Bain Capital.

Staff writer William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.

David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Comments
Show Comments
The Democrats debated Thursday night. Get caught up on the race.
The Post's Chris Cillizza on the Democratic debate...
On Clinton: She poked a series of holes in Sanders's health-care proposal and broadly cast him as someone who talks a big game but simply can't hope to achieve his goals.

On Sanders: If the challenge was to show that he could be a candidate for people other than those who already love him, he didn't make much progress toward that goal. But he did come across as more well-versed on foreign policy than in debates past.
The PBS debate in 3 minutes
Quoted
We are in vigorous agreement here.
Hillary Clinton, during the PBS Democratic debate, a night in which she and Sanders shared many of the same positions on issues
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the polls as he faces rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz heading into the S.C. GOP primary on Feb. 20.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
Fact Checker
Trump’s claim that his border wall would cost $8 billion
The billionaire's claim is highly dubious. Based on the costs of the Israeli security barrier (which is mostly fence) and the cost of the relatively simple fence already along the U.S.-Mexico border, an $8 billion price tag is simply not credible.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read

politics

Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.