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Election 2008

Race versus Gender in 2008

Desiree Cooper

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The Double Bind
(Courtesy National Archive/Newsmakers)
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All eyes are on this weekend's Democratic primary in South Carolina.

The large African-American population there is in the hot seat--especially the African-American women. Will they vote their race and come out for Senator Barack Obama? Or will they support their gender, and vote for Senator Hillary Clinton?

Many say they'll vote for whomever speaks to them on the issues. But the stakes are high. So, for many black women--who vote largely Democratic--it's not just a question of which issues are more important, but which identity is more important: race or gender.

Racism is like chronic pain--it's always there and it always hurts. But there are many respites from racism. Like when I'm around my dinner table or with friends. That's when I'm free of race. Just Des. Not so with gender. Even at home, I'm supposed to know where the socks are because I'm the woman. For years, I did most of the childcare, the housework. Unlike racism, sexism followed me home.

The famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass was also an early feminist. He once observed that talking about equal rights for animals would be less controversial than talking about women's rights. Well, now there's a woman poised to take the highest office in the land.

How does a black woman turn her back on that?

"Yes, and that's the dilemma, and why I have had to sit on the fence," says Jackie Washington, an African-American feminist. We met 20 years ago on the board of a Detroit area women's foundation. She remembers when Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm ran for president in 1972.

"I walked around the city of Detroit trying to place placards in barber shops and places like that. I was ridiculed. I mean, the males just thought that was the funniest thing that they had ever heard of in their lives," Washington recalls. "So I knew it was going to be very, very difficult to ever get a woman in a position where she would be seen as a viable candidate for the presidency."

That's one reason she was so excited about the Clinton campaign.

"Having a woman as president who understands reproductive choice, issues of equal pay for equal work, who understands the glass ceiling, who understands child care and early childhood education--all of those are issues women in feminist movement have fought for," Washington says. "And most of the women who have run for office--not all of them, but the majority--those are top issues for them."

"Are those the top issues for you, as opposed to issues of race or racial equality?" I ask her.

"It is very hard for me to separate that," she says. "I wish it were that easy."

Of course, not all black women feel as torn as Jackie does.

"The difference between you and me is that I relate more on race than I do on gender," says my friend Nicole Lamb-Hale, a Detroit attorney. She never questioned her loyalties. "When I think about it, Des, as an African-American woman, when I walk into a room, I really believe they see my race before they see my gender. I mean obviously they're entwined, and they'll get to my gender. But the reason I see it as a clear choice to support Barack Obama, from an historic standpoint and otherwise, is that he's a wonderful candidate who's African-American, and who is eminently qualified to lead the country."

I ask if whether for her, this about the moment for an African-American man to be president, or is it more about Obama?

"It's about the moment for a man to be an African-American president, and the icing on the cake for me is that I know the man, and I know what kind of person it is, so that makes it better for me."

Not for a majority of the black females in Congress. Of those who've stated a preference, most are supporting Clinton.

Eleanor Holmes Norton said it best. She's the delegate for Washington D.C. She told CNN it was hard to make a decision when "everything that you have fought for all of your life comes true, all in one election."

But for African-American women, this dream come true is clouded by the pressure to pick the candidate who can most effectively break the presidential barrier. More than at any other time in history, they feel they have to make this vote count.

  • Music Bridge:
    Chicago Morning
    Artist: Hauschka
    CD: Room to Expand (Fat Cat)
More stories from our Election 2008 series

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