Will a women’s council help?

Across the pond, President Obama yesterday celebrated IWD by creating a new Council on Women and Girls. He said:

The purpose of this council is to ensure that American women and girls are treated fairly in all matters of public policy,” Obama said in a statement. “My administration has already made important progress toward that goal. I am proud that the first bill I signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act. But I want to be clear that issues like equal pay, family leave, child care and others are not just women’s issues, they are family issues and economic issues.

I like the way he framed that because to get popular support, these policies need to be made relevant to the widest group of people. As Lisa Belkin points out on the NYT, if the council does address issues such as unequal pay, maternity leave, childcare and work/life balance – everyone benefits, not just women.

Is such a Council needed in the USA or even the the UK? It’s main role is to coordinate the work of various agencies across government departments on issues that affect women disproportionately. But there is a danger, as Jen points out here, that remains merely a symbolic initiative and a tool for re-election.

I’m torn over whether this would be a good thing for Britain. It could very well become a symbolic body that pretends the government is being pro-women without actually doing much. Furthermore, it wouldn’t be an elected body and add to the litany of quangos that already litter the political landscape.

On the other hand, a permanent council could certainly help coordinate government efforts at a time such as the current economic crisis. It would also take the heat of certain MPs (Harriet Harman), who are forced to push forward equality legislation because no one else is making the case for it in government.

But here’s another problem, which the Americans don’t have: it may remove popular support for NGOs that push these issues. America has a vibrant civic culture where grassroots feminist organisations (among a range of NGOs) abound. Britain doesn’t. We have a few high-profile organisations like Abortion Rights and Fawcett Society (not a definitive list obviously), but nothing like the breadth and depth in the USA. A Council might make feminists in the UK even more complacent about pushing their agenda at government level. Possibly.