Sunday Forum: What About the Women?

With Clinton finally vanquished, Obama must tackle issues of gender equality in the same way he talked about race, argues SALAMISHAH TILLET of

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Hillary Clinton's announcement that she is suspending her campaign and supporting Barack Obama means that Mrs. Clinton's historic bid to become the first woman to win the White House is ending in disappointment. But the "women question" that has dogged Mr. Obama during the primaries will continue to generate controversy going into the general election. The question is: What does Mr. Obama need to do to win the support of women who supported Mrs. Clinton?

Salamishah Tillet is an assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. (C) Copyright 2008, Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, LLC and All rights reserved.

Having defeated a formidable woman, he now must spotlight the concerns of her supporters, not simply to bring Mrs. Clinton's older, white female voters into the fold, but also to demonstrate his allegiance to all women, a crucial base constituency of the Democratic Party. To not do so will guarantee a loss in November.

In the closing weeks of the primaries, many believe that Mr. Obama continued to get the gender issue wrong. In the month of May alone, several controversies emerged.

Mr. Obama referred to a Michigan reporter as "sweetie," after which he apologized. Some people read it as condescending when he said that Hillary Clinton had "shattered myths and broken barriers and changed the America in which my daughters and yours will come of age." Then NARAL endorsed Mr. Obama over Mrs. Clinton, highlighting the divide between older feminists and a younger generation of "post-feminist" women. And, of course, there is the small problem for Mr. Obama of being viewed as the only obstacle standing in the way of America's first female president.

Even as a fervent Obama supporter, I identify with some of the frustration and anger that older, white, liberal women feel at the failure of Hillary Clinton's campaign.

It is a huge slap in the face of all women, regardless of race, not to have had a viable female candidate for president until now. Women make up more than 50 percent of the U.S. population and outnumber men among voters, so it makes no sense that we are so under-represented in elective offices.

Today, 16 of the 100 U.S. senators are women and 74 of 435 seats in the House of Representatives are held by women. Seventy-four women hold statewide elective executive offices across the country of the 315 available positions. Twenty of the 87 female members of Congress, or 23 percent, are women of color. This statistic is much worse for elected state executive positions; only four, less than 6 percent, of 74 are women of color.

This gender gap is one of the biggest failures of our democracy, and it has been doggedly resistant to change. For me, one of the saddest aspects of Mrs. Clinton's failed bid is that it has taken this long for Americans to almost elect a woman. Given our numbers and the vaunted American ethos of democracy, it should have happened a long time ago.

But it has also been hard to swallow some of the racist language that has been invoked in this campaign, by former vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro and others, in their rants against sexism. When Democratic women say that they will vote for presumptive GOP nominee John McCain -- an anti-affirmative action, anti-choice candidate -- rather than Mr. Obama, they not only would be voting against their own interests, they would help to bolster the very system of patriarchy and white supremacy they claim to resist.

Despite their disappointment, it is unfair, historically inaccurate, and, at times, racist for Clinton supporters to blame Mr. Obama for women being denied access to the presidency. That culpability rests at the door of a 400-year-old system of white male privilege in which women did not receive the right to vote until 1920 (and for many African-American women until 1965). This is the same system that continues to deny women equal pay for equal work; which assumes men to be better equipped and more competent leaders; which provides families with no affordable child care and which countenances widespread gender-based violence against women.

And when the mainstream media ponders Mr. Obama's political appeal to women, it is exclusively in the context of white women, the potentially lost Hillary voters.

While Mr. Obama needs to court older white women, he also should speak more broadly to the role that gender and sexism continue to play in American life. This affects not only the demographic that includes Clinton supporters, but all women. I say this because while his core constituencies are the college-educated, African Americans and young people, a majority of these voters are women.

Much like the speech on race he delivered in Philadelphia, I would like Mr. Obama to talk about gender equity as a fundamental tenet of his campaign. He needs to spotlight his Equal Pay Act, to speak more fervently about reducing gender hate crimes and to reach out to second- and third-wave feminists of all colors.

Mr. Obama should pledge to study the intersections of class, gender and race. And he should promise to have a Cabinet that reflects the racial, gender and sexual diversity of the United States. He could be the president who begins the eradication of race privilege and male privilege.

These steps would answer the "women question" -- and a whole lot more.


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