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A Vote of Allegiance?

In the Obama-Clinton Battle, Race & Gender Pose Two Great Divides for Black Women

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 24, 2008; Page C01

Woman has an ocean of wrongs too deep for any plummet, and the Negro, too, has an ocean of wrongs that cannot be fathomed. There are two great oceans; in the one is the black man, and in the other is the woman. . . . I will be thankful in my soul if any body can get out of the terrible pit."

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-- Lucy Stone, 19th-century abolitionist and suffragist, after women were excluded from the 15th Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote.

The "isms" have once again been pitted against each other. Sexism or racism -- which ism is deepest? All things being equal, should a woman or a black man be lifted to the presidency? Which "first" is the imperative first?

The admonitions of white feminists urging black women to vote gender over race have cracked open a scab, a festering sore, that had crusted over the history of this country's competing isms. A scab that covered the lingering tension between some white feminists and some black women, with their dual historic burden of race and gender. It is black women, after all, who have faced both sexism and racism in their lives.

In the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, which ism goes first? Some women fear the question, say it is divisive, explosive, should never be asked. But it has been asked -- in the recent writings of feminists including Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan. The question is ripe, reeling under the surface, discussed with muffled outrage by black women grown weary of white feminists seeming to tell them what to do.

* * *

Alice Thomas, who is black, is thinking about the question, talking about the campaign, about Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. About the recent comments by Geraldine Ferraro and the exhortations of some feminist leaders.

A law professor at Howard University's School of Law, Thomas lives in Northwest Washington, in an upper-middle-class, racially mixed neighborhood with grand houses and big trees that blow with the sway of affluence. Most of the prominent white feminists are affluent, too. But their language, their mission, says Thomas, do not resonate.

"I never felt a kinship with white feminists. There never was a time when I felt something familiar when I heard Gloria Steinem," she says. "I always thought these same women went home and slept with those men who were discriminating against me. I wanted to say, 'Could you talk to him on the pillow tonight?' "

"I felt they were women who had the luxury of taking on battles a little at a time. . . . With the presidential election, NOW has taken a position against Barack Obama in favor of Hillary, making that a feminist stand. To take a position opposite Barack is to take a position opposite my family and our community."

She says her grade-school son looks at the Obama campaign with wide eyes and now believes he could grow up to be president. The white feminists, she says, have had the opportunity to have their boys dream that dream realistically for decades.

Seated at a restaurant, she looks out onto Connecticut Avenue. Black and white people walk by. The day is an awful shade of gray.


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