In her op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, Gloria Steinem asks us to imagine a hypothetical candidate — Barack Obama as a female, essentially — and then asks, “Be honest: Do you think this is the biography of someone who could be elected to the United States Senate? After less than one term there, do you believe she could be a viable candidate to head the most powerful nation on earth?” While I don’t disagree with much of what Steinem says about the barriers women face in politics, her hypothetical doesn’t seem to capture her point. While it may be true that women face greater hurdles than African American men in achieving power, Steinem’s “Achola Obama” starts off with two strokes against her in the political game: she is both African American and female. There’s no doubt that African American women, disturbingly, face even longer odds than either white women or black men.
Moreover, a dry recitation of Barack Obama’s background does not begin to capture his appeal to voters. Not every black, male candidate with his background would be able to score such an impressive victory in Iowa. A lot of African Americans have feared that Obama is unelectable, particularly before the Iowa caucuses. Based on their own experiences with racism, it seemed an impossible dream. Many women have felt the same way about Hillary Clinton. It may well be that this country would elect a President who is black and male before it elects one who is female. But I’ve never been sure, because I also believe, given the unpredictability of politics and the importance of intangibles like a person’s presence and charisma, that it will require a kind of perfect storm to elect either one: the right candidate, and the right conditions. As an Obama supporter (who nevertheless would be thrilled to see Clinton win), I am hoping the stars have aligned for Obama. Many hope the same for Clinton. As Obama would say, we have two choices: we can hope, against the odds, or we can resign ourselves to the status quo. Of course it’s not fair that we have to wait for a perfect storm. But all the same, if either Clinton or Obama wins, the victory will be monumental. We should work for such a victory, and if it comes, we should savor it.