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Obama Challenges Women to Use Their Progress for Change

President Barack Obama reads over a program before delivering the commence address at Barnard College, New York, May 14, 2012.
WHITE HOUSE - President Barack Obama used a college commencement address in New York City on Monday to urge women to use economic and social progress they have made to bring about a better future.

Obama's address at Barnard College, a women's college that is part of Columbia University, combined words intended to energize and encourage female graduates with some sharp observations about the economy and political climate in the United States.

The president noted that women now comprise half of the U.S. workforce. And he urged them to use their increased earning power and academic achievement to lead the way for change.

"More and more women are out-earning their husbands. You are more than half of our college graduates and masters graduates and Ph.D.s," Obama said. "So you have got us out-numbered. After decades of slow, steady, extraordinary progress you are now poised to make this the century where women shape not only their own destiny but the destiny of this nation and of this world."

Obama received his undergraduate degree from nearby Columbia College in New York City in 1983, an institution that he noted did not admit women until that year.

Despite growing opportunities, he said women face unique challenges, including achieving pay equality with men, and balancing demands of work with family, and "fully controlling decisions about your own health."

Obama spoke about the still difficult economy and a political and financial environment that he said can be discouraging.

"As young people, in many ways you have it even tougher than we did," he said. "This recession has been more brutal, the job losses steeper, politics seems nastier, Congress more gridlocked than ever. Some folks in the financial world have not exactly been model corporate citizens. No wonder that faith in our institutions has never been lower."

The president indirectly added some 2012 re-election politics to his remarks. He aims to solidify support among women and younger voters in his contest with likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

"We know that we are better off when there are rules that stop big banks from making bad bets with other people's money, when insurance companies aren't allowed to drop your coverage when you need it most, or charge women differently from men," he said. "Indeed, we know we are better off when women are treated equally and fairly in every aspect of American life, whether it's the salary you earn or the health decisions you make."

The president's visit to New York also included a visit to a popular television program and an appearance at two fundraising events.

One of those took place at the home of pop singer Ricky Martin, an event co-sponsored by the LGBT Leadership Council, a group representing gay and lesbian Americans.

Obama last week announced his support for legalization of gay marriage, becoming the first American president to do so and boosting his support in the U.S. gay community which is an important source of contributions for his re-election campaign.