Obama and the ‘Women Question’

With Clinton finally out of the race, Obama needs to tackle issues of gender equality in the same way he has talked about the nation's racial divide in Philadelphia, if he wants to win in November.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

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 the nation’s elective offices.

Today, 16 out of the 100 U.S. senators are women and 74 out of 435 seats in the House of Representatives are held by women. Seventy four women hold statewide elective executive offices across the country, 23.5 percent of the 315 available positions. In terms of ethnic diversity, 20 of the 87 female members of Congress, or 23 percent, are women of color. The statistics are much worse in elected state executive positions; only four, less than 6 percent, of the 74 are women of color.

This gender gap is one of the biggest failures of our representative democracy, and it is a trend that has been doggedly resistant to change. For me, one of the most saddening aspects of Clinton’s failed bid is not that she came so close to the nomination, but that it has taken this long for Americans to almost elect a woman. Given our numbers and the vaunted American ethos of democracy, it is something that 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 Obama, they are not only voting against their own interests but are helping 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 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 childcare, and which condones widespread gender-based violence against women.

And when the mainstream media ponders Obama’s political appeal to women, it is exclusively in the context of white women, the potentialy lost Hillary voters. While I do think the Obama camp actively needs to court older white women, I think he should speak more broadly to the role that gender, and particularly sexism, continues 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 his speech on race, I would like Obama to talk about gender and gender inequity as fundamental tenets of his campaign. He needs to spotlight his Equal Pay Act, speak more fervently about gender hate crimes and his commitment to boosting the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women, and he should continue to reach out to second and third wave feminists of all colors.

For the general election, Obama should pledge to launch an effort 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.

That would answer the “women question” and a whole lot more.

Salamishah Tillet is an assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of the non-profit organization, A Long Walk Home, Inc., which uses art therapy and the visual and performing arts to document and to end violence against underserved women and children.