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Posted by on Feb 8, 2009 in Economy, Politics | 0 comments

Choosing the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau Director

With the Lilly Ledbetter Act now law, and the first piece of congressional legislation signed by President Barack Obama at that, it’s time to consider who will lead the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau in its fulfillment of its mission:

Mission Statement

To improve the status of wage-earning women, improve their working conditions, increase their efficiency, and advance their opportunities for profitable employment.

Vision Statement

The Women’s Bureau promotes 21st Century solutions to improve the status of working women and their families. Better Jobs! Better Earnings! Better Living!

Let’s take a look at history before looking at the possible choices President Obama could select.

This history, prepared when the Bureau turned 70, in 1990 (yes, it was created the same year women got the vote – but the DOL wasn’t even created until 1913), isn’t that easy to read only because it is so plain, compared to what we’re used to reading on the Internet now.  However, it’s got all the information about the Bureau, up through 1990.  And all of it is fascinating, including significant passages about each of the directors during those 70 years.

Here is the U.S. Code, as of 2007, that details the duties and responsibilities of the Bureau:

It shall be the duty of the Women’s Bureau to formulate standards and policies which shall promote the welfare of wage-earning women, improve their working conditions, increase their efficiency, and advance their opportunities for profitable employment. The said bureau shall have authority to investigate and report to the Department of Labor upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of women in industry. The director of said bureau may from time to time publish the results of these investigations in such a manner and to such extent as the Secretary of Labor may prescribe.

You can see how the Ledbetter law figures into the bureau’s role.

What kind of women have served as director in the past? The Bureau’s website offers this gallery, with photos, dates and information, on all past directors.  There have been several women of color – I remember the first, Alexis Herman, very well, even though I was only a teenager at the time. From her Wikipedia entry:

Jimmy Carter met the young Herman while campaigning in Atlanta, Georgia and, after winning the White House in 1977, tapped her to be Director of the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau. At age 29, she was the youngest person to ever serve in that position.

Wow – age 29.  She went on to be the Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton in his second term, the first African-American nominated to that post and the fifth woman appointed to it.

So what might Obama’s list of possible candidates look like? According to at least a few blog mentions, Kim Gandy, President of the National Organization of Women (NOW) should make anyone’s short list.  From PunditMom:

To say that Gandy would be the perfect person for the slot is an understatement (and I’m not just saying that because I hear she’s read my blog every now and then!) 😉

Gandy has devoted her life to fighting for the rights of women. It started for Kim when, according to her Wikipedia entry, she had to get her husband’s permission for employee benefits when she worked for AT&T after getting out of college. Yeah. His permission. That would have inspired me to do something, too.

Seriously, Gandy has worked tirelessly for women ever since…

Since 2001, Gandy has led NOW’s campaigns on issues ranging from Supreme Court nominations to the rights of mothers and caregivers, from Social Security reform to ending the war in Iraq. Through grassroots political action, Gandy helped increase the women’s vote and change the face of Congress in 2006 and is leading the organization’s efforts around the pivotal 2008 elections.

That’s exactly the kind of person I want in charge of women’s issues at the Labor Department, especially now as the administration contemplates how more women will be able to employed in the jobs creation aspect of the stimulus package. Gandy has been a champion for women’s rights her whole life, and that’s who I want working hard to make sure women get an equal slice of the job creation pie.

Other posts speaking positively of Gandy include long-time political insider and women’s rights advocate, Cynthia Samuels and assistant director of the Center for Research on Women & Gender at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Veronica Arreola, who wrote this post at Viva La Feminista.

PunditMom’s post notes that a few blogs – some that may be familiar because they sounded the PUMA and “no Obama no way” arguments during the 2008 elections – disagree with the idea of Gandy. At least one blog suggests other leaders who should be considered including Ellen Bravo, who is well-known for her connection to working women via 9to5. Her colleague, Karen Nussbaum, is in fact one of the past directors of the Bureau.

While we should be so lucky to have multiple, excellent choices, I would caution that using retaliation as a basis for who you support or don’t support (Gandy and NOW endured a lot of heat for eventually endorsing Obama, though they’d been supporters of Clinton early on) is a very ineffective method of persuasion when it comes to offering advice.  It certainly doesn’t promote the idea that an entity that says it’s about women first and ideology second is in fact about women first and ideology second.

Regardless, Gandy’s is a name that appears to be most in play and it’s easy to understand why. Luckily, there is a deputy director position.  That arrangement is precisely conducive to the kind of unity and diversity of voices Obama has said he wants in his administration, if Obama chooses wisely.

NB: One chore that needs to be accomplished ASAP? Updating the Bureau’s Wikipedia entry.  Paltry, but given what we’ve been hearing about the technology left by the Bush administration, not surprising.  Here’s to hoping that the Obama administration’s emphasis on upgrading  new media will do this step without being asked once a director is in place.