Carol Jenkins

We Are Witnessing the Remaking of America

In the darkness of predawn, we walked silently through the streets of Washington to take our places on the mall. As the day began, there was no noisy jubilation, only the sound of forward movement, a determination to secure a spot to witness history. Mine was about midpoint among, we believe now, a million and a half witnesses. I stood next to a middle-aged man wiping tears from his face as his wife leaned into him; behind a mixed group of young men -- black, Asian, white -- in awe of the spectacle; in front of a group of older black women, quietly insisting the younger, taller ones stoop down so they could see. They responded quickly with a smile. I’ve never been in a more congenial, optimistic, unified throng.

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Show Me the Women Moderators

Now that the presidential debates are underway, and we know we'll be seeing much more of John McCain, can we turn our attention to those we'll be missing? Namely, women journalists who could serve as able moderators -- and who were passed over by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

The result is that we must again endure the old boys at the network. This is not to in any way insult their talent -- it's just that we have been here before. In fact, over and over again, as if time had not passed, as if a woman had not run for President, as if there was, in fact, not a woman on the Republican ticket to this day. When it comes down to the most important conversations about our country, women have been asked to leave the room.

Carole Simpson of ABC was the first and last to operate in the post-primary season debates: that was in 1992. So, for four Presidential cycles -- 1996, 2000, 2004, and this year, 2008 -- the Commission and the networks have deemed no woman anchor or correspondent "worthy" of the big discussions, the "serious" conversations.

We know, of course, that reliable Gwen Ifill, reprising her duties, now has the most anticipated debate -- the Vice Presidential match-up on October 2 between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. We also know that she is capable of handling Barack Obama and John McCain -- and that there are many other women who could as well: Judy Woodruff, Katie Couric, Andrea Mitchell, and my personal favorite, Candy Crowley of CNN, come to mind immediately.

But in truth, the reason the networks go back again to Jim Lehrer, Tom Brokaw and Bob Schieffer is that mainstream media has done an inadequate job of mentoring and promoting women in their news departments.

At The Women's Media Center, we launched a campaign, Show Me the Women, urging people to write to the Commission and demand they add a woman. Many responded, including Bob Schieffer, who will be hosting the October 15th debate on domestic issues. While saying he couldn't do much to alter the form of the debate, he would accept questions from WMC. If you have one you'd like us to send along, please add it here by October 1st.

But our work has just begun. A question or two in a debate does not equalize access.

The basic training for moderating a Presidential debate is anchoring the big evening news show, and hosting the Sunday morning news/talk extravaganzas that validate the week's priorities. Sunday morning is still an all-male zone, channel-to-channel. While we have seen an increased presence of women pundits, we have not seen many serious women journalists moving up the ranks. Campbell Brown has taken over the "women's hour" on CNN. The fact that progressive Rachel Maddow now has a successful show is good news all-around, but it does not add to the" tenure track," if you will, towards Presidential Debate-dom.

That will require all of us, first of all to notice, then protest, the absence of women in the media at the highest levels. If women can run for President and Vice President of the United States, then surely there's a woman or two up to asking the right questions.

Black Women Are Invisible This Election Season

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.


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