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The Loud Silence of Feminists

By Mary C. Curtis
Saturday, June 21, 2008

Michelle Obama has become an issue in the presidential campaign even though she isn't running for anything. An educated, successful lawyer, devoted wife and caring mother has been labeled "angry" and unpatriotic and snidely referred to as Barack Obama's "baby mama."

Democrats, Republicans, independents, everyone should be offended.

And this black woman is wondering: Where are Obama's feminist defenders?

It's not as though they're out of practice. In 1992, Hillary Clinton was deemed too assertive and not first lady material. Similar, and worse, claims were made this year. But just as you didn't have to be for Clinton to decry the sexism in the coverage of her campaign, you don't have to be an Obama supporter to defend Michelle Obama against similar treatment.

So I want to know: What does Gloria Steinem think? She was out front with her support of Clinton, promoting the importance of a female president. She has even endorsed Barack Obama. What's her reaction now that the knives are out for another strong woman?

How about Geraldine Ferraro, the former vice presidential nominee whose racially tinged denunciations of Barack Obama sparked a media firestorm?

Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, has said: "We're going to keep watching because we think Michelle Obama will be the recipient of the same kind of attacks that Hillary was."

A feminist ray of hope.

The campaign against Michelle Obama -- who went on "The View" this week to prove her everywoman bona fides -- has not caused a rift between black and white women so much as it has exposed it.

I've long been frustrated, as a black woman and a feminist, with our national conversation. I didn't hear the cause speaking up for women of color or for women who have always worked in blue-collar or service jobs. Choice was not their issue.

The woman who employed my educated mother to clean her house never quite saw her as a sister in the struggle for equality.

Still, I cheered Steinem when she spoke at my college. Her message could have been more inclusive, but it was a start.

I'd like a little of that solidarity back now, not suspicion because someone of my race defeated someone of our sex.

Michelle Obama is being demonized for things she allegedly said on tapes that are rumored to exist. She is a victim of sexism and racial stereotypes.

Just as the Rutgers women's basketball team was miscast by Don Imus, Obama is being labeled something she clearly is not. Her achievements are being dismissed.

But in America, there's seldom a cost for disrespecting black women.

I'm waiting for feminists who speak of second-class citizenship and being pushed to the back of the bus to remember the civil rights movement that gave birth to those words. After all, it was a black woman, Rosa Parks, who took her seat up front and pulled others there, too.

I'm not holding my breath, though.

As a journalist, I have stayed neutral about political candidates. But as an American, I would have been excited about the historic first had Hillary Clinton emerged victorious from the Democratic primary battle. Yet when an African American made a different kind of history, it seems that feminists can't share in the triumph.

They don't have to vote for the husband to defend the wife.

Okay, I get it: Your candidate lost. You're angry.

But frankly, I'm getting a little peeved myself.

The writer is a columnist at the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer.

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