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Protester at the 2018 Philadelphia "March to End Rape Culture." Photo: Eva Sheppard
Protester at the 2018 Philadelphia "March to End Rape Culture." Photo: Eva Sheppard

Biden takes his first steps to dismantle four years of Betsy Devos at the Department of Education

A number of executive orders signed on International Women’s Day are a first crack at dismantling regressive gender policies.

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Monday, March 8 was International Women’s Day, and President Biden celebrated it in three important ways. 

In his celebratory speech, he urged Pentagon leaders to continue making progress towards gender equality. Through the elevation of more women to leadership roles and designing armor and gear that properly fits women, he indicated his hopes to create a force where women could “thrive.”

He used this speech to announce his nomination of two women generals for four star commands after their promotions were previously held back under the Trump administration.

Three-star army general Laura Richardson was nominated to lead Southern Command, and U.S Air Force General Jacqueline Van Ovost, was nominated to head Transportation Command. Biden said he nominated them on Friday, and if confirmed, they’ll become the second and third women to lead combatant commands.

Biden took the opportunity to make the case that much more still needs to be done to improve conditions for women who serve, most importantly, dealing the endemic sexual assault and harassment.

According to Pentagon data, sexual assault reports have been steadily rising since 2006. Biden called the problem, “nothing more than a threat to our national security.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has promised to address these issues, and in late January, he ordered senior Pentagon officials to send him reports about their sexual misconduct prevention programs as well as details on accountability measures and whether they have been successful.

Also on March 8, the president signed two relevant executive orders focused on gender equality.

First, he directed his administration to review the rules guiding colleges in their handling of campus sexual assaults.

The Department of Education will now be examining rules that the Trump administration issued around Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education.

Biden has instructed the agency to “consider suspending, revising or rescinding” any policies that fail to protect students. 

Biden focused heavily on gender equity throughout his campaign, and promised an “immediate” end to these rules that were finalized last year by former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. 

Her policy made extensive changes to the way that colleges respond to sexual harassment and assault cases. Her rules narrowed the definition of sexual harassment, reduced the legal responsibilty colleges have in investigating claims, and gave accused students the right to cross-examine their accussers at live campus hearings. 

Just as DeVos wasn’t able to enact these insidious changes overnight — it took her three years —any efforts to rewrite these rules could also take years to complete. 

Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, said that the announcement was welcome, but changes very little in the present. 

“In the meantime, the Trump regulations will remain in place,” Hartle said. 

Republicans slammed Biden’s move and defended DeVos’ rules, mainly focusing on the importance of due process. 

Some of the most contentious aspects of DeVos’ rules, including the requirement to allow cross-examinations, will most likely be eliminated. But some legal experts expect Biden to find a middle ground that equally protects both the accused students and their accusers. 

Biden received praise for his order from civil rights groups, as well as from colleges that claimed DeVos’ rules were burdensome to follow. 

“This is an important step,” said Shiwali Patel, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center.

“The Title IX rules that took place under the Trump administration are incredibly harmful, and they’re still in effect,” Patel added. 

Lastly, Biden proudly re-established the White House Gender Policy Council.

During the Obama administration, it was known as the White House Council on Women and Girls, but Trump disbanded it.

The new council is tasked with helping push gender equity on the administration’s efforts of domestic and foreign policy. Some of the issues it will focus on include decreasing wealth and wage gaps, addressing structural barriers to women’s participation in the workforce and combatting sexual harassment. 

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