The Danger of False Divides

A review of Who Should Be First?: Feminists Speak Out on the 2008 Presidential Campaign. Edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Johnnetta Betsch Cole, SUNY Press.

The 2008 Presidential campaign not only tested our nation’s readiness for change, it catapulted feminists into a firestorm of competing priorities. Much was at stake for racial- and gender-identity politics in the Democratic primaries that pitted then-Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama against each other—the first time a man of color or a woman had emerged as a leading candidate for the presidency. During those months, Guy-Sheftall and Cole were gathering personal archives of written material related to the unprecedented campaign. They have honed their collections into an anthology of writings on the subject, including personal reflections, open letters, op-ed pieces, petitions, critical essays and speeches, most of them contemplating or agonizing over the nagging question: Who should be first?

The result is a contemporaneous record of a riveting rhetorical battle, especially among feminists, over the preeminence of race or gender. Guy-Sheftall and Cole’s compilation of the perspectives of journalists, professors, public intellectuals, students and bloggers—including such influential voices as Gloria Steinem, Katha Pollitt and Mark Anthony Neal—has captured the mood of this momentous event.

Essays by law professor Tracy A. Thomas and author Alice Walker place the campaign in useful historical context: Thomas reflects on parallels between the 2008 primary debates and the divide among 19th-century progressives over the 14th and 15th amendments, which granted the vote to black men even as they excluded women’s suffrage. “Women … were told that it was the ‘Negro’s hour’ and that they must patiently for their time to come,” she writes. Walker explores the racial history of Jim Crow segregation and the denial of black voting rights: “Imagine, if he wins the presidency we will have not one but three Black women in the White House; one tall, two somewhat shorter; none of them carrying the washing in and out of the back door.” Both Thomas and Walker view the contest with tremendous awe and hope, while simultaneously warning of the dangers of false divides when we fail to recognize our common oppressions and different experiences.

In contrast to the long view of history taken by Thomas and Walker, most of those writing during the debate season could not see beyond the primaries. And though some addressed the intersection of race and gender, many couldn’t get past the question of who should be first. Yes the general election revealed that voters—whatever their race, age or gender—were able to transcend their identity-based sentiments to elect a first, even if he was not their first choice.

Janell Hobson is associate professor of women’s studies at the University of Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture (Routledge, 2005).

Photo: Cover image of Who Should Be First? from SUNY Press.


  1. Jay Kallio says:

    I am deeply disturbed by what appears to me to be, not "transcendence" by voters, as this article claims, but the whitewashing of critically important issues that were illustrated in the 2008 primary campaign. While Feminists were cowed into silence rather than applauded for promoting the first viable woman presidential primary candidate, the exhortations to promote the first male black candidate were tag teamed up front. Somehow an ever present haze of political shame seemed crush anything hinting at gender identity politics, while racial identity politics was promoted across the board by media and academia. While Hillary Clinton was made the brunt of severe and relentless gender based slurs, distortions, lies, and grotesque mischaracterizations by fellow Democrats, Obama enjoyed an undiscerning, uncritical opprobrium. Both Clintons and their supporters were tarred with a broad brush as racists, causing incalculable damage to the previous unity of those supporting civil rights and social justice. The sheer ugliness and ruthless vindictiveness that was leveled at Hillary Clinton for being a woman who dared to strive for the power to promote women's issues and status in this country has somehow been dismissed as "politics as usual" when the reality was hideous beyond that of any other campaign this active Democrat has participated in for over 40 years.

    Overlooking and minimizing the sickening degree of misogyny that destroyed the Clinton campaign and irrevocably demonized one of the hardest working, most ethical and accomplished women public servants of our time is a grave disservice to all woman. Disagree as you might with any of Clinton's political positions, allowing the political destruction of women's right to pursue public office by another Democratic campaign because she dared run for higher office is unconscionable. Minimizing the incalculable cost to the world when women's rights and priorities are defamed and thwarted – by the very feminists charged with carrying the torch for women's rights – sets us farther back than anyone seems willing to acknowledge.

    "Winning at all costs" strategies by the Obama campaign won the day in 2008, but the long term end results are a cancer on the long term success of progressive advancements. It was a Pyrrhic Victory, and the vital blood that was spilled is dried, but irreversibly lost. There can be no unity with misogyny, gender based stigma and prejudice, and tacit approval of the disempowerment of women. The cost of their success was too great, and the damage irreversible. Some life essence was sucked from the most dedicated, fiercest women fighters for the equality and rights of all, and trying to ignore that crucial damage serves no one.

  2. Janell Hobson says:

    This new collection is a really good resource on the campaign and covers the issues you discuss, Jay Kallio. Fortunately, it moves beyond the race-gender divides that you seem to be perpetuating here, as the Obamas had to deal with their fare share of blatant racism that surfaced during the campaign. We need not presume that the racism they dealt with was "easier" than the misogyny leveled at Clinton.

  3. My comment made no comparison whatsoever to the relative ease of dealing with either racism or misogyny. The facts are that there was tremendous media and public attention directed to the racism issue, while the grotesque misogyny in evidence was nowhere to be found in public awareness, even in the feminist movement. I find that utterly unacceptable, as should every woman in this society. If anything, there was a very direct attempt made to silence and divert attention away from addressing the feminist issue, to the point where Senator Clinton herself only would make private reference to it, and eventual public mention at the speech she delivered in DC after ending her primary campaign, when it would not matter what disfavor her comments curried. This gender issue is nowhere near remedied in our society, and I will raise this issue whenever it rears it’s ugly head, not to be dissuaded by accusations of divisiveness. Real differences and perpetuation of misogyny deserves attention, not to be swept under the rug. We don’t “move on” until the problems are solved, and intellectually framing them otherwise does not solve them in real life. Perhaps when there is true parity of women in leadership positions I may cease and desist, not before.

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