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Black Women Are Invisible This Election Season

The presidential candidacy is still out of reach for a woman of color. Her disadvantage runs too deep.
 
 
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Our national conversation is a messy collision of race and gender, with ageism and the questionable state of our media tossed in as collateral damage.

The 2008 presidential race is making us think hard on everything we thought we knew or felt about our country -- and who we each are in it. But as an American woman of color, an African American, I don't get the feeling too many others are giving much thought to my place.

For the record, women of color are in last place: at the bottom of the charts when it comes to wages (only 68 cents to the white male dollar); at the bottom of the charts in terms of political power (just 14 African American women in Congress, and that includes two non-voting members). We are more likely to die early from almost every disease. Finally, and disastrously for our interests, we remain the least seen and heard in this country, virtually non-existent in positions of power and visibility in media.

Last night on CNN, I participated in a discussion about the cross section of race and gender specifically -- one precipitated by an OpEd written by one of the Women's Media Center founders, Gloria Steinem. The piece, which ran in The New York Times on Monday, titled "Women are Never Front-Runners," included one line that made some people in this country, including some of my friends (black and white), go nuts:

Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House.

The OpEd rocketed through the country -- indeed, the world -- and our office was swamped with requests for statements, elaborations. That's how I came to be in dialogue with Charles Ogletree, the esteemed Harvard Law professor who can claim credit for having taught both Barack Obama and Michele Obama a thing or two while they were his students.

The topic was, in the diluted form required by mass media: what's worse -- being black, or being a woman? My answer of course, was "Both. Imagine how I must feel." The host, Rick Sanchez, said I couldn't sit on the fence, I had to choose.

So, speaking only for myself:
Having spent a lifetime waging battles on both fronts, I believe that sexism is now the more pernicious because it often still resides in our deepest, most subconscious self. It is one that devalues or dismisses or endangers women -- even within ourselves. Gender bias cuts through race and class and age and geography with intent to undermine. And, if you're a woman of color -- even more so.

Whatever one's political bent, Hillary Clinton's run for the presidency has crystallized our stark unfamiliarity with women: never in this country has a woman been so visible; never have our reactions to a woman, positive or negative, mattered as much. And never has our mainstream media been so insanely obsessive -- acting like teenage boys (and they are mostly boys) who don't know what to do when a woman enters the room.

And yet, while a white woman and a black man now run for the most powerful position in world, that fact doesn't yet translate into possibilities for a woman of color. Her disadvantage -- money, connections -- is too deep.

Gloria's essay considered an African American woman with the same credentials as Barack Obama, and concluded that she would not find herself as close to the presidency as he is; that the barrier of gender -- no matter how "charismatic" she was -- would have hobbled her.

But as often happens, as the public debate over the commentary raged, the black girl was soon forgotten.

In almost every conversation I've had about the topic, what is clear is that when people were saying "women" they were thinking white women; when they were saying "black" they seemed to be thinking about men. Few were thinking about women of color.

South Carolina could change at least some of that. As the campaigns surge towards that critical primary state, black women will take on an unprecedented role: perhaps one third of the state's Democratic voters are African American women. The stakes couldn't be higher.

Carol Jenkins is President of the Women's Media Center and a Founding Member of its Board of Directors. An Emmy award-winning former news anchor and correspondent who covered presidential politics as well as international issues, Ms. Jenkins leads the Women's Media Center's online publication and its advocacy initiatives.