Yvonne Bynoe

Presidential Candidates Ignore Working Mothers

The 2008 presidential race is historic because Hillary Clinton is in it. Yes, Clinton is a woman, but she is also a woman who worked while raising a child. Surprisingly, she is not using her experience as a working mother to her advantage in this campaign. Like all of the men, Hillary's focused on Iraq. I am interested in when we will get out of Iraq and how we will deal with global terrorism, but I am just as concerned about how the next president will deal with the lack of family leave and affordable childcare. I think that a candidate who articulated a comprehensive plan to help 21st century families to better balance work and home would win by a landslide.

There are approximately 26 million working mothers in the United States. In my own circle, every mother works, even part-time or in a home-based business. The majority of us had mothers who worked, and we tend to see our jobs as a hedge against the uncertainties of marriage and life. One of my friends became a single mother when her husband died of cancer in his early 40s, and another joined the ranks after a divorce. In a few other cases, the wife's income helped keep the family afloat and insured when the husband's corporate job was eliminated.

The stark reality is that the majority of American mothers work out of economic necessity. Even for married mothers, fewer of their husbands' salaries are enough to support their households. According to the Department of Labor, in 2004 nearly 71 percent of mothers with children under 18 were in the work force. This figure includes 62 percent of mothers who had children under 6 years old. Even an informal survey conducted on Oprah.com earlier this year revealed that 91 percent of mothers polled said that they worked out of financial need.

Politicians regularly state that they support children and families, yet the United States and Australia have the distinction of being the only industrialized countries that do not have paid family leave. An American working mother can expect to receive only 12 weeks of unpaid leave, and she only gets that if she works for a company with more than 50 employees. After the birth of a baby, not only do most American families have to cobble together a leave strategy, they also must struggle to pay their bills with one less salary. The same holds true if an older child becomes ill. This means that many single mothers risk unemployment if they cannot immediately find a care provider. Given the cost of childcare, it may be easier to locate it than to pay for it.

Nearly 12 million children under age 5 are in some type of regular childcare each week. According to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, the childcare cost for one infant is between $3,803 to $13,480 a year, depending on where in the nation the child resides. My husband and I paid nearly $1,000 per month to send our three-year-old to a day-care center, certified by the State of Maryland, for about 15 hours per week. The problem of paying for childcare is most acute for low-income women. While a two-wage household spends about 10 percent of its income each year on childcare, a single mother spends nearly 33 percent of her income on childcare.

Having children is serious business, so people should be both emotionally and financially ready before taking the plunge. However, current public policies seem to be stuck in the 1950s, presuming that most families are comprised of one full-time wage earner and a stay-at-home mother. In truth, working mothers, whether they are married or single, are now integral to our national work force. It is therefore not a handout to update our laws so that working mothers don't have to sacrifice their children in order to stay employed.

The real change candidate will not be determined by race or gender but by new thinking. The person who gets my vote will not relegate topics such as family leave, flexible work schedules and affordable childcare to the political back burner called "women's issues." This candidate will understand that to ignore the needs of half of our citizens weakens our nation's long-term ability to compete in a global economy and improve our standard of living here at home.

Unbought and Unbossed

"Tremendous amounts of talent are being lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt." - Shirley Chisholm

When Carol Moseley Braun ran for president in 2004 few in the media or in the U.S. electorate took her candidacy seriously. The dignified Braun did not articulate either the bold policy positions or the fiery rhetoric that garner headlines or followers. In comparison Sen. Joe Lieberman and Rep. Dick Gephardt were equally bland but they were nonetheless considered viable candidates. The former U.S. senator from Illinois and former ambassador to New Zealand possessed a paltry war chest and a ragtag campaign operation, but so did fellow candidates, Rep. Dennis Kucinich and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Unlike Braun, who was quietly dismissed, these two contenders were labeled as grassroots candidates who spoke for millions of marginalized citizens. What made Braun’s run implausible to millions of voters and to the pundits seems to have had more to do with her gender than with her politics or her finances.

Anyone who has spent any length of time in black communities knows that despite highly visible male leaders, it is the women who are chiefly responsible for organizing and maintaining the numerous ad hoc programs and committees that benefit, children, women and the disadvantaged. Particularly in churches, which remain important social centers for millions of black Americans, it is the women who regularly cook sumptuous meals that are distributed to the needy in their neighborhoods. Black women around the country can still be found teaching the next generation in Sunday schools and arranging for their churches to participate in free lunch programs for children during the summer. In an earlier time when black churches were local command posts for the civil rights movement, thousands of unsung black women performed the unglamorous work of canvassing neighborhoods, making photocopies, passing out flyers and proofreading speeches. By playing supporting roles to male leaders, women helped organizations such as the Montgomery Improvement Association, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) to have the capacity to be strong advocates for political and social change. Later when many black Nationalist organizations, on ideological grounds, discouraged black women from assuming leadership roles, they still undertook the administrative tasks and field duties that were crucial to the development of the Black Power movement.

In 1968 Shirley Chisholm officially stomped on the idea that leadership was the sole prerogative of black men by becoming the first black women elected to the U.S. Congress. Three years later, by announcing her intention to seek the Democratic nomination for president, Chisholm publicly defied conventional notions about race, gender and class in asserting her right to run for the nation’s highest office. In her 1972 presidential bid Chisholm failed to win one primary and the Democratic nomination subsequently went to George McGovern. However, Chisholm’s then quixotic candidacy opened the door for future presidential aspirants: the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton, former Ambassador Alan Keyes and Carol Moseley Braun.

Not surprisingly, in 1968 many black nationalists opposed her candidacy stating that the first black president should be a man. In a December, 1981 interview with the Associated Press, Chisholm reflected on the impact of race and gender on her political career sayings, "When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Men are men."

Chisholm, who served seven terms in Congress, died this week in Florida at the age of 80. In 1982 she decided not to seek re-election in a political environment that was becoming increasingly conservative. In a scene that could have played out in the 2004 election cycle, Chisholm left Washington after saying that moderate and liberal legislators were "running for cover from the new right." Chisholm retired to Williamsville, N.Y. and in 1984 she was elected the first chairperson of the National Political Congress of Black Women.

Born Shirley Anita St. Hill in Brooklyn, N.Y., Chisholm worked as a nursery school teacher before being elected to New York State Assembly in 1964. In 1968, Chisholm ran for Congress in New York’s 12th Congressional district in Brooklyn. In the Democratic primary, as a slap to her opponents she used the slogan, “Fighting Shirley Chisholm: UnBought and UnBossed.” In the general election she would defeat the well-known civil rights leader, James Farmer, who ran as an independent on the Republican and liberal lines, and Ralph Carrano, who ran as the conservative candidate.

Chisholm’s slight frame and demure appearance camouflaged the blunt and unflinching politician that she was. As a freshman representative, Chisholm challenged the House’s seniority system, which had relegated her to its Agriculture Committee, an assignment she considered irrelevant to the Bedford-Stuyvesent district that she served. Rather than quietly going with the program, Chisholm instead issued a parliamentarian assault on Wilbur D. Mills, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee (who would later be toppled in a sex scandal), who parceled out the committee assignments. Soon thereafter Chisholm was reassigned, first to the Veterans Affairs Committee, and eventually to the Education and Labor Committees.

Chisholm was an outspoken advocate for labor, women and children. As a member of the House of Representatives she constantly fought for increased funding for education and childcare services. Chisholm sought to include domestic workers in minimum wage legislation, and delivered a passionate speech to her congressional colleagues about her own mother's experiences as a domestic worker. She also co-sponsored the Adequate Income Act of 1971, which would have guaranteed a minimum income to all families. Chisholm was also an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. She joined a group of 15 U.S. Representatives who introduced a bill to end the draft and replace it with an all-volunteer military. Chisholm also publicly called for the U.S. to end arms sales to apartheid-era South Africa.

In her 1970 autobiography, “UnBought and UnBossed” Chisholm stated, "Our representative democracy is not working ... because the Congress that is supposed to represent the voters does not respond to their needs. I believe the chief reason for this is that it is ruled by a small group of old men."

It is not easy to assess how Chisholm’s career impacted the political landscape for black or female candidates. Braun is only the second black woman to run for president and although Geraldine Ferraro joined Walter Mondale’s presidential ticket in 1984, no white woman has run for president since Victoria Woodhull in 1872. The presidential prospects for white women however are distinguished from those of black women by the fact that there are several white female senators and governors in the pipeline, but not one black woman is similarly positioned.

In assessing her legacy Shirley Chisholm was quoted in the 1990 book, "Shirley Chisholm: Teacher and Congressman," as saying, “I’d like to be known as catalyst for change, a woman who had the determination and a woman who had the perseverance to fight on behalf of the female population and the black population because I am the product of both being black and a woman.”

The lesson of Chisholm’s political career is that a black woman running for political office must be both intelligent and audacious in her belief that she is best person to do the job. Moreover she must be willing fight the fights necessary to wrest power from the establishment as a means to improving her constituents’ lives. Gender and its potentially hindering affects, therefore, was not the main theme of Shirley Chisholm’s journey, but rather it was the futility of playing the old boy game unless you are an old boy.

Hip Hop as a Political Tool

Many people who want to politically and civically engage young people see hip hop culture as the best avenue to accomplish these goals. Although hip hop culture is ubiquitous, particularly in relation to youth, such a road is fraught with landmines, given controversial rap music lyrics that tend to sensationalize violence, crime and sex and rap music videos that depict women as sex toys. However, for social change agents intent on this path, the challenge is to begin to formulate strategies that use hip hop to foster young people's interest in and engagement with issues that impact them and their communities. This new use of hip hop is a sharp departure from the more common but less effective practice of using it to either lure young people to political events or as a vehicle for young people to write and rap about issues, but not to devise ways to resolve them.

Social change agents, rather than getting mired in the entertainment aspects of hip hop, can instead use hip hop within a political or civic framework by getting young people to begin to think critically about themselves, their world and their role as citizens. In thinking about using hip-hop in a new socially and politically progressive way, I urge social change agents to consider the following:

1. Content is Not Neutral: When discussing hip hop, rather than being solely concerned with not alienating youth or simply validating their expressions, social change agents should also challenge young people to assess and analyze hip hop culture and its effects (positive and negative) on them and their communities. Some questions to consider would be: 1) What do the lyrics of a particular song really mean? Many young people listen to the beats of rap songs but not to the lyrics. 2) Who controls hip hop in terms of how rap artists are selected; what rap music is produced; how and to whom it is marketed to; what is the role of commercial radio in making rap music hits and who benefits financially from hip hop? Many young people erroneously believe that it is people like themselves rather than corporate executives who largely direct the course of mainstream hip-hop culture. 3) What personal and community values, principles and ideals does a particular rap song promote? Do the young people agree or disagree with these beliefs and why? Unfortunately, in the absence of alternative influences, many young people are using the messages and images of hardcore rap music and rap music videos to develop both their personal and public identities.

2. Focus On History: Today, many young people coming out of our public schools lack a grounding in history; a sense of what their ancestors went through so that they could have the opportunity to even think about being rap moguls or multimillionaire ball players. The perfunctory Black History Month programs invariably highlight the same three or four heroes, but in schools there is no long-term commitment to telling young people about the many and complicated steps that were necessary to secure their current freedoms and options. Regrettably, many young people have scant knowledge of slavery (some even question that it occurred or was really brutal). Despite all of the talk about the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, many young people have little knowledge about the social and political events that preceded them. This information vacuum makes young people susceptible to a "here and now" mentality that does not support collective political or social action, much less a long-term commitment to either individual or community goals.

3. Leadership Development: There needs to be a more concerted effort to fund and champion programs that tangibly expand young people's leadership capacity. The role of the leader has to be de-mystified and made accessible to a wider group of young adults. This means more programs that help young people to understand how community groups, decision-makers and elected officials operate and function to serve their constituents. Young people must be given the tools and opportunities to develop real initiatives that can affect their immediate communities. Moreover, young adults should be encouraged not only to become activists, but also elected officials on their local school boards and city councils. It is also important to stress that not everyone need be an out-in-front "leader" to be a change agent. Young people need to know that at the community level and at the state and federal levels there is a great need for behind-the-scenes players such as media relations professionals, speechwriters, fundraisers, lobbyists, policy analysts, chiefs of staffs, legislative aides and attorneys.

4. Fight Image With Image: The glitz and vitality of hip-hop is an omnipresent force in the lives of young people, often with no strong countervailing influence. The easy choice for social change agents is to get a rap artist to speak to young people they are attempting to connect with or convey a message to. However, the harder, but more productive route is to find someone young people can identify with who also can introduce them to new ideas about what they can achieve in their lives and neighborhoods. In order to construct a countervailing presence, new role models that approximate the current crop of hip hop celebrities, in age, style and ability to relate to young people has to be cultivated.
Rather than a 50-year-old law partner in a staid blue suit, a 25-year-old law associate in a Sean John outfit is perhaps a more useful success story. This young role model should not feign ghetto credentials if he does not have them, but should be someone comfortable talking about his background and the steps he took to reach his goals. It is also important that role models are conversant in hip-hop culture and its mores so that they can begin the dialogue where the young people are.

5. Thinking Beyond Voter Registration: Over the years there have been numerous voter registration efforts that have boasted thousands of new registrants, yet these activities have not translated into the hip hop generation actually voting in greater numbers. As a result of the hip hop generation's poor voting record, elected officials do not perceive it as a constituency whose concerns matter. Voter registration is an important first step, but there are other steps that are necessary to motivate new voters to actually cast a ballot. In some cases, social change agents can increase voter turnout by reminding new registrants to vote with a telephone call or email a few days before an election or by providing them with rides to and from the polls.

Other young people, however, need to be provided with a reason to vote. Surveys have consistently shown that generally young people do not vote because they have an incomplete knowledge about what creates and solves political and social problems; they do not have a clear idea about what politicians do; and cannot name candidates running for office. However, these same surveys also indicate that initially young people are concerned about their immediate neighborhoods, and then their interests expand to city, state and national issues. What many of these one-shot registration drive, benefit concerts, and hip hop confabs have not been able to do is engage in long-term voter education, helping young people to understand the role of government in remedying political and social issues and how through their own voting and civic activities can help to improve their lives and local communities.

Politically, the goal of the hip hop generation must be to move away from rhetoric and symbolic activism to real and substantive political action. It is imperative that we cultivate new leadership and establish new programs and organizations to address this generation's concerns. Hip hop culture can be one tool in the arsenal, but we can no longer afford to depend on it as the exclusive means to develop a viable hip-hop generation political constituency. Moreover, as we mature politically we will better understand that artistic expression alone will not alter flawed public policies, but it can be used to jar folks who have tuned out.

Yvonne Bynoe is the author of 'Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip Hop Culture' and is president of Urban Think Tank Institute. On Friday, June 16, 2004, she will be participating in the Women's Track of the hip hop Political Convention in Newark, NJ.
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