Where and When we Enter: Black Women and Election 2008

| Mon Jan. 14, 2008 3:53 PM EST

Gloria Steinem was right: a black woman with Obama's exact pedigree wouldn't register as more than a blip in a presidential race; whether it was Achola or Jaquita Obama, she'd couldn't get elected Senator let alone seriously contend for the White House. Let alone be seen as The Great Black Hope who made white folks eurphoric at their own generosity. Obama's race is seen as unifying while Clinton's gender is seen as divisive.

It seems pretty obvious that, rather than deal with Steinem's potent argument, folks are focusing on what she (i.e. feminism) didn't do about Bill Clinton and on disparaging the "hierarchy of oppressions" (gender v race) angle when that's her very point; progress on race has always taken a back seat to progress on gender - black men did get the vote before women, however impossible it was to exercise. Let's not forget that non-white men benefit just as much from sexism as the white ones do, a reality that made my military years much more a battle against sexism than racism. Keeping women in their place is the one thing folks with a penis can agree on. How deeply we feel our own oppression, how blase we are about others'.

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What Steinem misses though is the vision to limn what Senator Clinton has, indeed, done for feminism with her very presence but hardly at all with her politics; that, unfortunately, has been all too much in lockstep with the patterns of patriarchy. That middle-aged women even changed her name to placate the knuckle draggers rather than stand her feminist ground. How ironic that she gets zero credit for playing the game on patriarchy's terms - not throwing the bum out, putting her own career on hold, withdrawing into political purdah after the right wingers derailed her health care initiative - and full blame for invoking gender at the margins. Hell, the nation's most ambitious woman moved to Arkansas after law school and not straight back to DC.

More specific to the current race though is what mainstream western feminism all too often misses - the impossibility of separating race from gender when you're black. And when you live in S. Carolina where nearly half the voting black population is black women. Steinem was right to stand tall on the gender double standard but she was dead wrong not to devote sustained, respectful analysis to the conundrum confronting the black, especially black female, voter. Sneer all you want (especially if you voted twice for Bush) but black women love them some Clintons. How the hell are they supposed to choose between the devil they know against Obama, The Second Coming, the son we all hoped to raise or the son-in-law we all hope to snag? And Oprah, too!

As usual, Mark Anthony Neal, has the goods - a black, male feminist's take on Clinton vs Obama, gender vs race:

Like Geraldine Ferraro, the democratic vice-presidential candidate in 1984, Ms. Clinton has a political style that easily disassociates itself with stereotypical notions of femininity--a style that is largely dictated by the masculine sensibilities of electoral politics in our country. Ironically, Clinton's willingness to play the game on patriarchy's terms has been, until recently, used against her. That Ms. Clinton is still married to a man involved in the most visible sexual harassment case in American history, also does little to enhance her viability as the candidate that could more adequately address gender inequality in our society. Where was Ms. Clinton when her husband rode workfare programs--the premise being that women who are home taking care of young children are not really working--to his reelection in 1996?

In contrast to Senator Clinton though, what has Mr. Obama done, really, to justify the large number of women supporters that he has drawn to his campaign--other than be a tall, handsome, articulate and not particularly threatening version of black masculinity?

This is a tough vote for black women, let alone feminists. Why should they believe Obama's thought more about the savage realities they face than he has about the war in Iraq? But what are Senator Clinton's thoughts? If she's going to claim OJT from being First Lady, what did she say to her hubby over croissants the morning he signed off on welfare reform? I bristle at that dynastic notion. So, just as those who bring their religion into the public arena need to explain and defend it, she needs to explain and defend her role, or lack thereof, in the issues of those days.