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Obama creates White House women's panel

President Barack Obama invoked his grandmother, his single mother and his two young daughters on Wednesday in creating a White House panel to advise him on issues facing women and girls.
President Barack Obama signs an Executive Order creating the White House Council on Women and Girls.Ron Edmonds / AP
/ Source: NBC News and news services

President Barack Obama invoked his grandmother, his single mother and his two young daughters on Wednesday in creating a White House panel to advise him on issues facing women and girls.

Obama, standing with prominent members of his administration and with his wife sitting nearby, signed an executive order creating an across-the-government council designed to help Cabinet agencies and departments collaborate on ways to make sure women were provided opportunities offered to men.

"I sign this order not just as president, but also as a son, a grandson, a husband and a father, because growing up, I saw my mother put herself through school to follow her passion for helping others," Obama said. "But I also saw how she struggled to raise me and my sister on her own, worrying about how she would pay the bills, educate herself and provide for us."

Obama made special mention of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who stood near him at the East Room event, calling her an example for women who struggle to break barriers. He also noted that he had the privilege of participating in an "historic campaign with an historic candidate who we now have the privilege of calling 'madame secretary.'"

He said he signed the order to honor all the women who came before him, such as his grandmother who was a bank vice president but was denied promotions because of her gender. He said the fight for gender equality is far from over.

"Now, it's up to us to carry on that hope, to ensure that our daughters and granddaughters have no limits on their greatness, no obstacles to their achievements, that they have opportunities that their mothers, their grandmother and great-grandmothers never dreamed of," Obama said.

He also said his own experiences with the women in his life reflect the challenges of all women.

"I've seen it in Michelle, the rock of the Obama family, juggling work and parenting with more skill and grace than anybody that I know. But I also saw how it tore at her at times. How sometimes, when she was with the girls, she was worried about work; when she was at work, she worried about the girls."

Obama cited statistic to back up his case: Women earn just 78 cents for every dollar men make; 1 in 4 women still experiences domestic violence; women are 49 percent of the work force but only 3 percent of Fortune 500 chiefs.

Obama named senior adviser Valerie Jarrett — herself a single mother — to head the group, which would include Cabinet secretaries and other administration officials. White House aide Tina Tchen would run its day-to-day operations.

"The council is going to examine all the programs at the federal level that touch on women and girls and we're going to work to coordinate and make sure that each of those programs is doing everything that it could do to help support women and girls," Jarrett told NBC News after the event.

An all-star group was present at the signing, including: First Lady Michelle Obama; Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas; Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.; WNBA player Lisa Leslie; Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan; Attorney General Eric Holder; and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The announcement was part of the administration's push to mark Women's History Month.

Later Wednesday at the State Department, first lady Michelle Obama joined Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to present the department's Award for International Women of Courage to seven female activists from Afghanistan, Guatemala, Iraq, Malaysia, Niger, Russia and Uzbekistan who have fought to end discrimination and inequality.

"I know a little a bit about the role that Michelle Obama is filling now and I have to say that in a very short time she has through her grace and her wisdom become an inspiration to women and girls not only in the United States but around the world," the former first lady said by way of introduction.

Mrs. Obama returned the compliment, thanking Clinton her service and dedication to improving living conditions for women and girls.

"As women, we must stand up for ourselves," she said. "As women, we must stand up for reach other. As women, we must stand up for justice for all."

Advocates praised the new panel. The National Women's Law Center applauded the move but added that more needed to be done. California first lady Maria Shriver, who is working with the Center for American Progress on a report on women's issues, said the move was a reminder that "we are now what I like to call 'a woman's nation."'

NBC's Athena Jones contributed to this report.