Sisterhood of Powerful Black Women in Washington Politics Comes to the Fore
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Like two old girlfriends catching up, they ignored onlookers, hugged and laughed.
Donna Brazile, the political strategist and Washington veteran, peppered Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson with questions.
"How are the kids?" "Have you contacted the church? I don't go every Sunday but they know me."
Before she left, Jackson had an open invitation to Brazile's place for home-cooked red beans and rice, served up every Monday night.
"The sisterhood in this town, there's deep history here," Jackson said.
The "Obama women" -- as African American women who've taken big jobs in his administration have been nicknamed -- mark another step in the long journey of black women from outsiders to gatekeepers in political Washington. They have quietly entered their jobs with little attention paid to the fact that they are the largest contingent of high-ranking black women to work for a president.
Many are firsts -- as in the first black woman to run the Domestic Policy Council, the first black EPA chief and the first black woman to be deputy chief of staff. Last week, Obama tapped Margaret (Peggy) Hamburg to lead the Food and Drug Administration. If confirmed, Hamburg -- who is biracial (her mother is African American, her father Jewish) -- will also be a first.
Seven of about three dozen senior positions on President Obama's team are filled by African American women. Veterans in town see them as part of the steady evolution of power for black women, not only in the White House but also across the country -- in the business world, in academia, in policy circles.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a District native who served in the Carter administration, said the significance of Obama sending Valerie Jarrett to represent the administration at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, days after he took office, was not lost on her. There, Jarrett was introduced by economist Klaus Schwab as "President Obama's personal representative; influential adviser; trusted confidante. . . . When she speaks, she speaks really with his voice."
To Norton, it was an indication of the broad authority that black women now wield.
"I'm not sure there's ever been a black woman who has enjoyed as much of the president's confidence as Valerie Jarrett. She has not been compartmentalized and is used in a variety of ways that I think is a first," Norton said. "The Obama women are a sign of how far we've come."
Inside the young administration, the women said they have been slammed with work and left with little time to think about their place in history. But there are moments.