Obama and the 'Women Question'

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Hillary Clinton's decision to end her campaign and endorse Barack Obama this weekend means that Obama is now assured of the Democratic nomination for president, and that Clinton's historic bid to become the first woman to win the White House will end in disappointment. But the "women question" that has dogged Obama at times during the primaries will continue to generate debate and controversy going into the general election, and Obama will eventually have to address it forthrightly.

On a basic level, the question is: What does Obama need to do to win the support of women who support Clinton?

Having defeated a formidable woman, he must now spotlight the concerns of her supporters, not simply to bring Clinton's older, white women voters into the fold, but to also 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 Obama continued to get the gender issue wrong. In the month of May alone, several controversies emerged:

Obama referred to a Michigan reporter as 'sweetie,' before calling her to apologize.

Some people read it as condescending when he said in one speech 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 Obama over Clinton, highlighting the divide between older feminists and a younger generation of "post-feminist" women.

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And, of course, there is the small problem for 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 the anger that older, white, liberal women feel at the failure of Hillary Clinton's campaign.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Salamishah Tillet is a rape survivor and co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that uses art to end violence against girls and women. She is also an associate professor of English studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship, Racial Democracy, and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination. She is working on a book about civil rights icon Nina Simone.

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