As the competition for the Democratic nomination seemed to wage on endlessly between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, much was made of their historical bids to be the Democratic Party candidate for the White House: he as the first African American contender with a realistic chance to become President of the United States, and she as the first female in serious contention for that job. Each time I hear or read these descriptions, however, I think about who is missing in framing these firsts in this way.
Clinton herself pointed out these twin themes of “first woman” “first African American” in her concession speech:
When we first started, people everywhere asked the same questions:
Could a woman really serve as Commander-in-Chief? Well, I think we answered that one.
And could an African American really be our President? Senator Obama has answered that one. ..
As the “woman candidate” Senator Clinton’s White House bid highlighted feminist themes and much was made in the news about her heavy support among women. Senator Clinton’s concession speech itself drew heavily on such themes; she thanked older female supporters who were born before women in the U.S. could vote and said:
(W)hen I was asked what it means to be a woman running for President, I always gave the same answer: that I was proud to be running as a woman but I was running because I thought I'd be the best President. But I am a woman, and like millions of women, I know there are still barriers and biases out there, often unconscious...Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it.
Regarding the “first African American” angle of this saga, we saw headlines such as these: From ABC News, “Obama Becomes First Black Democratic Presidential Nominee”, and from the New York Times, “First Black Candidate to Lead a Major Party Ticket”. Senator Obama himself gave a speech on race that has been called “historic” in which he spoke of his racial heritage, addressed the brouhaha regarding his former pastor, and also about the complexity of race relations in the U.S.
What is concealed from the way these public discussions have been framed in describing how far we’ve come? The absence of those of double minority status— women “of color” is concealed by describing Senator Clinton as the “first woman” rather than “first white woman” and Senator Obama as the first African American as opposed to the first African American man. If the combined race and gender of the candidates were happenstance this would all be irrelevant, but is it?
Is it equally likely that the first African American presidential nominee would be a woman as it is a man? Sociologists who observe double minority status and its impact on women of color would predict that the first black candidate to reach such heights would be male. (I am differentiating between realistic versus symbolic presidential runs such as Shirley Chisholm’s in 1972; Chisholm made history by being the first African American to run for president of the U.S.; she won no primaries.)
Almost three-quarters of all U.S. presidents were senators or governors before claiming the top prize: fifteen of the country’s 43 presidents were U.S. senators while sixteen parlayed being governor into being president. Because being senator or governor is a major pipeline to the presidency, I decided to have a look at how well African Americans and women are represented among these two groups. Currently, Barack Obama is the only African American senator and he is only the third African American to ever hold that position. (Carol Mosley Braun, the one woman in this exclusive circle announced her intention to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2003, but dropped out even before the first major electoral event in that process.)
How about governors? When disgraced New York governor Eliot Spitzer resigned, David Paterson became the nation’s fourth black governor; notably, only two (Douglas Wilder and Deval Patrick) of the four black governors were elected. So of the few African Americans in the presidential pipeline, only one, Mosley Braun, has been female.
Is it by chance that the first woman who made it as far as Senator Clinton did in the U.S. presidential race was white? Women in many countries around the world have ascended to the top political ranks for many years (for example, Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Ghandi, Eugenia Charles, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and Portia Simpson-Miller), but we need to consider the context of race and gender in American politics. Again, looking at the presidential pipeline of senators and governors is instructive. Of 100 senators, sixteen are women and all of these women are white! There are currently eight female governors of the country’s fifty states and they too are white.
According to the Census Bureau, the racial/ethnic makeup of the U.S. is as follows: 75.1 percent white, 12.3 percent African American/Black, 12.5 percent Hispanic or Latino, 3.6 percent Asian, 0.9 percent American Indian or Alaska Native, and 0.1 percent Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. Clearly, the political offices examined here are in no way reflective of the racial make up of the country. Neither does the sex ratio explain any of this. For all of these groups, except for Hispanics, women outnumber men.
The candidacies of senators Obama and Clinton do stand in contrast to the domination of white males in U.S. politics. However, there has been little public dissection of Obama’s gender or Clinton’s race, and this lack of analysis conceals the challenges double minorities, such as black women, face in American society.