Originally published by Ms. Magazine on January 20, 2013. By Rachel Grate.
With Obama’s second inauguration approaching, it’s time to hold him to his campaign promises–especially those he made to women. There’s been a lot of discussion about Obama winning reelection because of women; now we need to start discussing specific actions Obama can take to create the future he imagined.
The Obama campaign began focusing on women long before politicians started making inappropriate remarks about rape, bringing women’s rights to the forefront. Last May, the Obama campaign introduced us to an avid supporter of the president named “Julia.” Julia is a fictitious young white, middle-class woman featured on the website Obama launched called “The Life of Julia.”
Now that Obama is starting his second term, I thought it was worth spending a little more time with Julia to check in and see if she still has such an optimistic viewpoint. After all, now that we’re certain for awhile that politicians won’t be moving us back to the 1950s, it’s time to hold Obama to his campaign slogan promise to move us “forward.”
Unfortunately, as a 19-year-old female college student trying to launch my career, I’m not convinced that Julia’s idyllic life will be quite so easily achieved by myself or my peers.
At age 18, Julia receives a Pell Grant for college, as well as an American Opportunity Tax Credit for up to $10,000 over four years. However, the average cost of a four-year university went up 15 percent between 2008 and 2010, with public universities in states such as Georgia, Arizona and California suffered increases of 40 percent and more. These fee increases, fueled by state budget cuts for higher education, have put an added stress on families like mine, a stress that a tax credit does little to alleviate and even Pell Grants can’t cover.
I attend Scripps College, a California private school, on a half-tuition merit scholarship. I’m one of the lucky ones who’s able to afford the education I’m receiving, and so is Julia. At age 25, Julia is well on her way to paying off her college loans, since Obama capped income-based federal student loan payments and kept interest rates low. Julia “makes her payments on time every month,” which she is able to do after starting her career as a web designer at age 23.
I hope to be so fortunate when I begin my career, for many college grads aren’t so lucky.Fifty-three percent of recent college grads are jobless or underemployed, making regular loan payments much more difficult than they are for Julia.
Even if one manages to enter the career of her choice, circumstances remain challenging for women. Among recent college graduates, full-time working women earn an average of 82 percent of what their male peers earn, according to a study released in October by the American Association of University Women. This remains true even after the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that Obama signed at the beginning of his first term. It is crucial that Obama continues to support thePaycheck Fairness Act as well, which was voted down unanimously by Republicans in Senate in June.
By age 27, Julia has been working for four years as a web designer, and “her health insurance is required to cover birth control and preventive care, letting Julia focus on her work rather than worry about her health.” Four years later, Julie “decides” to have a child–and this word underlines that it’s a woman’s decision when or if to have a child. The word also reflects the empowered women Obama supports, as when he thanked his wife Michelle in his acceptance speech as “the woman who agreed to marry me” (an interesting contrast to Mitt Romney’s reference to his wife as “the best choice I’ve ever made” in his concession speech).
During Julia’s pregnancy, she is portrayed with her hand resting slyly on top of her stomach so as not to reveal any ring. While I respect Julia’s privacy, the real world is not as accepting of such ambiguity. Just this year, the private high school my boyfriend attended allegedly fired a teacher for getting pregnant without being married. The lawsuit is underway, but a tarnished reputation is hard to clean and a hostile employer is hard to return to.
So, while visiting with Julia has calmed my fears of a future reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale, I’m still afraid. I fear for entering the job market not only as a recent graduate during an economic downturn, but also as a woman. I fear for those women less lucky than white, middle class Julia and me, who can’t easily pay off their student loans or rely on their parents’ health insurance.
I’m afraid, but I’m also proud. Julia’s experience may be a privileged one, but it is also hopeful. Julia has been criticized as pandering to women, but Julia isn’t just one in a binder full of women. Julia stands for a set of promises Obama has made about the future, and it’s up to us to stand with Julia to make sure women and men of all races, classes and sexualities can get there together.