08 July 2011

Obama's Twitter Town Hall: Where Are the Women?

Spending my summer at the Ms. Foundation for Women, I was immediately struck by one thing after watching a live feed of the July 6 Twitter Town Hall with President Obama on the economy and jobs: women were completely absent. This is particularly striking given how active women are on Twitter and how they choose to use it: Radian6, an organization that analyzes social networking trends, estimates that women have over 98,357 conversations about politics, of which 70 percent are about women and politics and 40 percent about the economy [i]. So why wasn't this reality reflected in Obama's town hall? Why was there not one single question about women and the economy selected? Of the 169,395 questions that were tweeted, I find it hard to believe that issues concerning women and the economy did not trend.

A breakdown by Radian6 of the most common questions #AskObama shows that financial security was one of the most tweeted topics (33.6%). Aren’t women and families seeking answers to financial security as well? We know they are, we know that they are having these conversations on Twitter, and we know that they #Ask[ed]Obama. To highlight a few:
@LisaMaatz: I'd still luv answer @BarackObama: how R U fighting4 #fairpay 4wmn after WalMart vDukes #SCOTUS decision? #askobama #walmartwmn #aauw #fem2

@9to5: We're rebuilding our economy 4a new era &need jobs that r #familyfriendly! Will U include #paidsickdays in rebuilding economy? #AskObama

@Thetaskforce: #AskObama 46% of Fortune 500 co have #lgbt nondiscrimination policies - how will you ensure fed. employment protections?

@Msfoundation: July2009-May2011 women lost 100,000 jobs while men gained 900,000. How will you stop women from losing out in the recovery? #AskObama #fem2

@RWV4Healthcare: Pls, RT! In tough times women cant pay xtra 4 preventive healthcare. Will u tell insurers to drop copays 4 contraception? #AskObama #RWVCiP
Every day, individuals and organizations across the country engage in discussions online about economic injustices that women face including barriers to paid sick leave, equal pay, and health care coverage.

So, again, what happened on July 6? One problem could have been inequality in decision making. Eight curators were chosen by Twitter to help select questions for the town hall. At first glance, it appeared that three of the eight were women -- an obvious injustice right there. Then looking more closely, I discovered that one of the curators, ModeledBehavior, is a team of 3 men. That means only three of ten curators fielding questions were women. [ii] What would have happened if women had been equitably represented?

Perhaps the issues being raised by women were not retweeted frequently enough to attract attention. And yet CBS News in their Political Hotsheet overview of questions posed to Obama highlighted a popular retweet surrounding reproductive justice advocacy:
“A variety of organizations that advocate for reproductive rights, such as Planned Parenthood, are retweeting a question from the group Raising Women's Voices that presses the president on extending his health care reforms. Mr. Obama's health care reforms included a provision to make preventive care free for patients, but these groups say that policy should include contraceptives. "Pls, RT! Women shouldnt have to pay xtra for preventive healthcare. Will u tell insurers to drop copays 4 contraception?"
Since the curators come from news backgrounds themselves, it seems improbable that CBS News would notice a trending women’s advocacy tweet that 10 other news reporters could not find.

I understand; the town hall was only able to field 18 questions in little over an hour. And I didn't expect every question to highlight the contextual issues that keep women in poverty. However, when questions concerning NASA (wasn't this forum about jobs and the economy?) are chosen over those economically pertinent to over half the US population, I begin to get confused. Especially given the rise of what Ms. Foundation President and CEO Anika Rahman has been calling a “womancession.” Between July 2009 and May 2011, women lost 109,000 jobs while men gained 959,000.[iii] Even more disheartening, of the 1.762 million jobs added to the economy between January 2010 and May 2011, only 17.3 percent went to women. [iv]

Yet despite how poorly women are faring, they continue to be ignored in national policies related to job growth and the economy. And if we can’t even receive the appropriate attention in a social media forum such as Twitter -- where we know we have such a huge presence -- how can we hope to make real progress within politics? It's well past time that reporters and politicians alike give equitable attention to women's voices speaking out against social injustice. The only way we can fight the jobs crisis and really fix the economy is if politicians hear women's resounding call for policies that address the entire US population. More than half of our country -- and our economy -- cannot be ignored.

By Stephanie Kershaw

Stephanie Kershaw is a communications intern at the Ms. Foundation for Women as part of Duke University's DukeEngage Moxie Project. "As my senior year approaches," she says, "I have been spending my summer immersed in the world of feminism, activism, and social justice for women in order to better understand how I can impact social change." 


[i] Coates, G. (2011, July 5). Radian6 Goes to Washington: Twitter #askobama Townhall. Retrieved July 7, 2011, from Radian6: http://www.radian6.com/platform-blog/2011/07/radian6-goes-to-washington-twitter-askobama-townhall/#idc-container
[ii] https://twitter.com/#!/townhall/july-6-curators/members
[iii] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2010, February 26). Databases & Tools: Data Retrieval: Employment, Hours, and Earnings (CES): Table B-5. Employment of women on nonfarm payrolls by industry sector, seasonally adjusted. Retrieved June 8, 2011, from United States Department of Labor: http://bls.gov/webapps/legacy/cesbtab5.htm
[iv] Id.

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