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Sisterhood of Powerful Black Women in Washington Politics Comes to the Fore

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When Jackson, with bodyguard in tow, walks through the corridors of the EPA's vast complex in the Federal Triangle, she invariably is stopped by one of her employees, often an African American woman, who says, "Thank you for being here." She is reminded not only of the history Obama made but also of the history she is making. Black women make up about 192,000 of the more than 1.7 million members of the federal workforce, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

"It's an indication that I'm one of theirs," Jackson said.

It's at church on Sundays that Melody Barnes, who heads Obama's Domestic Policy Council, is reminded. So many people want to stop and talk that her receiving line at the end of service is often as long as the pastor's.

"I certainly feel it when someone my grandfather's age stops me to say, 'Sweetheart, I'm proud of you,' but at the same time we are here to do a job," Barnes said. "For the most part, when we walk into the West Wing, we are focused on that job throughout the day."

Barnes was a principal figure behind the passage of the $787 billion stimulus package, held interviews with the media and called on allies in Congress -- where she worked for many years as chief counsel for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) on the Judiciary Committee. Her next priorities are to help shepherd plans for universal health care and improving public education.

Mona Sutphen, the president's deputy chief of staff and a foreign affairs expert, has been an advocate for loosening the long-standing Cuban embargo. Her ideas became law last week when less restrictive travel and trade rules were added to a spending bill passed by Congress.

White House Social Secretary Desirée Rogers parses guest lists, largely shapes the Obamas' social profile and orchestrates the Washington dance of dinners where politics are served around the table. In all of the busy-ness, there are times, Rogers said, when her old friend Jarrett will stop her in the hallway and dwell for a second on the import of their experience as African American women in the top echelons of the White House.

"I'm so fast. I'm always moving, and Valerie will say to me, 'Slow down. Just think about what we're doing,' " Rogers said. "It is important to maintain those friends and relationships -- that lifeblood that sustain you as you work in a very historic time."

Not so long ago, the appointment of a black woman to a senior position in any administration was a historic marker, a first. But the collective arrival of the women serving in senior positions in Obama's presidency has been noted only in small ways and mostly within the "sisterhood." A few weeks before Obama's inauguration, one anonymous admirer sent out an e-mail with photographs of seven senior staffers under the title "Sisters in the White House."

It listed Jarrett, Jackson, Barnes, Sutphen, Rogers, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and Cassandra Butts, deputy White House counsel.

It read like a dishy letter passed among girlfriends: "Did you know this sister is Valerie Jarrett, Transition Team Co-Chair? Did you know she's the 4th generation of educated professionals in her family and is a Stanford and U of M graduate? (A former corporate attorney, as the Chief of Staff in the Daley Administration, she hired an Ivy-Leaguer named Michelle Robinson!)"

"Most of us had met each other, but seeing the e-mail made me step back and think this is a really diverse and compelling group of women," Sutphen said.


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