Today we honor President’s Day, the achievements of great leaders from our past who stepped up and did what was right, or at least helped lead to what is right, even when it was not the most popular of choices. Because this blog deals with equality, not just for women but all people, I felt the best way to celebrate would be to highlight these decisions by our presidents passed who sought to bring our country together, honor our diversity and promote inclusion of all people. While some of these achievements listed were definitely imperfect, they paved the way to future progress and were, most likely at the time, the furthest reaching they could get away with. Changing a nation comes in steps and is a slower progress than we would like to admit. Great leaders know this and understand that small steps can accomplish more to change the temperament of a society, to make it more accepting and realize irrational fears are just that: irrational. Every single one of these decisions through our history were vigilantly opposed, yet these presidents stood firm towards a progress they hoped would someday be fully realized, even if they only contributed a small step towards it. While the battles ahead are assured to be arduous, we give thanks for the battles behind which give us the strength to know progress is possible. So, here is my appreciation for those presidents in our nation’s history who helped pave the way forward to equality.
Abraham Lincoln: Served as the 16th President of the United States from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. Signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 freeing all slaves in the United States.
Andrew Johnson: Served as the 17th President of the United States, from 1865 to 1869. In 1865 he awarded Ms. Mary Edwards Walker the Congressional Medal of Honor for “devotion and patriotic zeal to sick and wounded soldiers both in the field and in hospitals to the detriment of her own health.”
Harry S. Truman: Served as the 33rd President of the United States from 1945 to 1953. He signed an executive order declaring equal treatment and opportunity for advancement for all persons in the military regardless to race, color, religion or national origin. On June 12, 1948 he signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act which allowed women to serve as permanent, regular members of the armed forces in the Navy, Army, Marine Corps and Air Force.
John F. Kennedy: Served as the 35th President of the United States from January 1961 until his assassination in November 1963. In 1961 he signed executive order 10925 which established the President’s Commission on the Status of Women and appointed Eleanor Roosevelt as the Chairwoman. On June 10, 1963, he signed into law the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to abolish wage disparity based on gender.
Lyndon B. Johnson: Served as the 36th President of the United States from 1963 to 1969. In 1964 on July 2, he signed the Civil rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination of all kinds based on race, color, religion, and national origin and he established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In 1967 he signed executive order 11375 to expand the Affirmative Action Policy of 1965 to cover discrimination based on gender. On April 11, 1968 he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 prohibiting discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of housing.
Jimmy Carter: Served as the 39th President of the United States from 1977 to 1981. On October 31, 1978 he signed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibiting employment and workplace discrimination against women because they were or could become pregnant.
George H. W. Bush: Served as the 41st President of the United States from 1989 to 1993. On November 22, 1991 he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1991 strengthening existing civil rights laws and providing for damages in cases of intentional employment discrimination.
Bill Clinton: Served as the 42nd President of the United States from 1993 to 2001. On November 30, 1993 he signed the Military Policy Directive known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. While the policy required gay and lesbian soldiers to keep their sexuality secret, it was a step forward because they could no longer be questioned or singled out due to speculation of their sexuality. While far from perfect in securing equal LGBT rights, it opened the door to proving that LGBT were not a threat to security and that the military could function perfectly well with Gay and Lesbian soldiers in their ranks. It was a baby step towards a larger goal. On September 13, 1994 he signed the Violence Against Women Act.
Barack Obama: Served as the 44th President of the United States from 2009 to 2017. On January 29, 2009 he signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act into law, allowing victims of pay discrimination to file complaints with the government against employers within 180 days of their last paycheck. On February 19, 2009 he signed executive order number 13503 establishing the White House Office of Urban Affairs. On March 11, 2009 he signed executive order number 13506 establishing the White House Council on Women and Girls. On August 12, 2009 he awarded Harry Milk the Medal of Freedom. On October 14, 2009 he signed executive order 13515 Increasing Participation of Asian Americans and Pacific islanders in Federal Programs. On October 28, 2009 he signed the Mathew Shephard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. February 26, 2010 he signed executive order 13532 Promoting Excellence, Innovation and Sustainability at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. October 19, 2010 executive order 13555 enabled the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. On December 22, 2010 he signed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, allowing Gay and Lesbian citizens to serve openly in the armed forces. On December 2, 2011 he signed executive order number 13592 Improving American Indian and Alaska Native Educational Opportunities and strengthened Tribal Colleges and Universities. On July 26, 2012 he signed executive order number 12321 implementing the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. On August 10, 2012 executive order 13623 was signed Preventing and Responding to Violence against Women and Girls Globally. In 2013 he signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013. He also signed executive order 13647 on June 26, 2013 establishing the White House Council on Native American Affairs. On July 31, 2014 he signed executive order 13673, Fair Pay and Safe Workplace. In May of 2016 he issued a Presidential Directive to schools regarding transgender bathroom rights. While this was not a binding law, it did provide federal protections to the transgender community.
These presidents all played a role in paving the way for racial, gender, religious and LGBT equality. I am sure I did not list every achievement or action, as there is more information available on more recent presidencies, so please feel free to contribute additional actions in the comment section.
I hope we all can take a moment, this day, to recognize those presidents who used their position to bring our country and its people closer together, embracing our diversity rather than using our differences to divide us. These men, as imperfect as some of their policies may have been, saw and acted upon opportunities in their service to make our country a freer and more equal place. Even a stepping stone was still a step in the right direction.
As citizens, it is our job to ensure the continuation of this evolution in our society and not allow achievements to be lost, reversed or progress stagnated. The greatest presidential accomplishments have always been those which united our people under a single banner of citizenship and welcomed all those contributing to what has been historically called, “The American Dream.” Today, let us dream together of a better world, a better country, which values and prizes each individual on their personal merit and achievement without regard to race, sex, sexuality, national origin or religion. I can think of no better way to honor president’s day than by declaring, loud and clear, our hope for a future of universal equality.
We are One Woman, One World.
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