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.


Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.