Saturday, June 07, 2008

The First Woman I Voted For

Today I write a long post about a topic I've been thinking about for a long time, which frames my point of view in the work I do with women and girls. I hope readers will endulge me in such a long post and comment on The Answer...--Patti

Hillary Clinton acknowledged yesterday that she changed the landscape of politics forever by running for office, but also that the barriers and biases around gender and race still persist. As I log on to my laptop to read the commentaries and editorials this morning, I keep clicking to articles pointing out how landmark, how historical both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s campaigns are, discussing the difference they will make over time, how significant their runs are.

While we are sighing and expressing our gratitude to Hillary and Obama, I am wondering --how significant are their campaigns? Have they changed things forever? I’m thrilled to live in a time where these are my choices in my party. But still I wonder, does a single female candidate, or a single black male candidate, even running at the same time, change things forever about what we as a country think a woman or a black person can do? What is it that changes prejudice and breaks down barriers? How will we get from one single viable female candidate or black candidate (or can you immagine, a black female candidate!?) to ballots filled with people of different races, ethnicities and gender identifications?

A trip to Baltimore last week got me thinking about the first black woman I ever voted for, Susanne Gray Rice. When she ran for office, she was minus the "Rice" and we were both teenage girls at the time. Together with Truemenda Green, they ran for class president and vice president of our senior class at Western Senior High School. Over 20 years later and much to Susanne’s amusement I reminded her over crab cakes that she ran with the slogan "Gray and Green: The Colors of Success."

But I do remember it clearly, and as I think about it, having the opportunity to vote for a team of two black female candidates in high school was significant for me as white teenage girl growing into a white adult woman. What seemed normal and natural to me, voting for two black females in high school probably didn’t to many of peers across the country who never got the opportunity. And in this way, I do think that Hillary’s long run through all the primaries was worth it, and was landmark, because she provided the opportunity for so many people to drop the lever for a female presidential candidate. As was Obama’s for the opportunity to drop the lever for a black presidential candidate.

As significant as this is, I don’t think it’s enough to change things forever. I was 13 when Geraldine Ferraro’s made her historic run for Vice President and Reverend Jackson’s his run for President in 1984. There was this notion then, that they were opening the doors for women and minorities everywhere, the floodgates are open, the political landscape has changed forever. Optimism overflowed and at 13, I was certainly inspired. But the floodgates didn’t really open. And now here we are 24 years later talking about the historical significance of Hillary and Obama’s run for office. And yes, Obama does have the nomination, and that makes it different this time. But we also heard quotes from voters about how they can’t vote for Obama because he might be a Muslim and comments far worse. So, perhaps it’s the Gen X pessimist in me that has heard all this “significance stuff” before, what is really changing right now?

How do we move from the concepts of equality to as Hillary Clinton stated “an America that respects and embraces the potential of every last one of us”? A glimpse back to high school reminds me that I had more than the opportunity to vote for a black candidate in high school, I had the experience of seeing and knowing black females as leaders, as scholars, as individuals.

As a graduate of Western Senior High School's class of 1989, I attended a prestigious, rigorous high school which was also one of two of the country's all girls' public high schools. In the late 80's the majority of the students at Western were either black/African American, which meant I was surrounded everyday by smart black girls as classmates. This does not mean that all of my friends were black girls or that we lived in some kind of Sesame Street racial harmony. To the contrary, as a first year high school student, I quickly found a group of friends of whom the majority were white. But it did mean that in class and on graduation day, I saw black girls doing well, succeeding across all kinds of coursework, with multiple interests, living against the stereotypes on television, every school day for four years. The girls I knew weren't a white girl's side kick (Hello Dionne in Clueless!) or the token black girl at a private school (Tootie in Facts of Life, anyone?) or any other TV stereotype. In my world in high school, they were the lead in the play, the winner of the Latin Scholar Award, my team mates on the JV volleyball team, lab partners in chemistry, the girls I sat next to on graduation day, and yes, class president. As a result, it’s not a big ol’ surprise to me to see women and people of color in positions of power and authority. I don’t think I am free of prejudices—I am of the school that it’s impossible to be without them. But I do think that my real life experiences give me the basis to challenge my prejudice when it arises.

We live in a country still segregated in many places, with racism and sexism clearly alive and while, and where the barriers, whether concrete or glass, are still real. I know that my personal experiences as a racial minority as a white person was part of the anecdote to prejudice for me, it’s clearly impractical to suggest it is The Answer for everyone.

What is The Answer? I admit I don’t know it; people far smarter than I am are working on it. But I do know, that we must be vigilant in finding it, that we must watch how long this sigh of gratitude stretches, how significant we make two individual candidacies, and focus with intention on fighting racism and sexism head on. We should not get too caught up in the glow of the race and the gender of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In 24 more years, I’ll be 61 and I hope I’ll be writing an article on how we used this time to turn the tide on racism and sexism, not reminiscing about the choices we once had.

(Susanne Gray Rice pictured above is now a guidance counselor at Western, triathlete, mother, and all around inspiration-- Go Lady Doves!)


Anonymous said...

The landscape of politics in this country needed to change, and badly; and as you document, we have not progressed as far as we would have hoped. After I read your post, I thought about Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, who made a presidential bid in 1972 - you were one year old at the time! And of course I thought of Barbara Jordan, the eloquent speaker Black and Congresswoman from Texas, of all places. And I thought - 36 years after Shirley Chisholm ran for the Executive Office, we need more than human symbols and historic events in order to empower women and, indeed, empower the citizens of this country to be inspired to work for change. As much as Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama have been able to accomplish, our race - as women of all colors - for true equality, empowerment, and economic parity is far from over. Do we need public symbols of incremental success in order to succeed ourselves? I am sure it would help, and people seem to be inspired by charismatic indivduals more than by the issues at times, but I would like to see a grassroots movement sweep this country from the bottom up rather than witness the election of one person or another. I think there would be more substance to such a movement. We know from experience that sometimes our votes don't count. Maybe we need to make other actions count and rely on that process more than we depend upon election outcome - and really, this is what you describe when you write about your experiences at Western.

Well done, First!


MadisonMel said...

Excellent post, Patti. Those "18 million cracks" in the glass ceiling could very well miraculously "heal" themselves - and we'll be right back where we started.

However, what IS encouraging is the message Hillary's campaign sends to very young girls who may be paying attention to politics for the first time in their lives. What they've seen is a woman running a strong campaign for the highest office in the land. Perhaps they'll grow up in a world where such things may be taken for granted. At least, that is my hope.

Keep up the good work!!

Patti Binder said...

Thanks Mom and Madison Mel for reading and commenting. Mom-- I thought of Shirley Chisolm too, someone oft overlooked.

Madison Mel-- I think you are absolutely right that girls are growing up with a different perspective because of Hillary's run. And The White House Project is doing a fantastic job of keeping the pipeline of women of all ages running for office.

Susanne GR said...

Hey Patti,
Great post!
As I remember our days at the oldest all-girls public high school in the country (Western est.1844) I too am in awe of how it shaped the landscape of my life and others who attended similar schools. For me (and you too since we attended the same college) it was never a thought to stifle my thoughts or ideas around my male counter parts or even my professors. I always knew my own voice and the power and beauty in all women. Today at Western, I see the same kind of excitement and drive in my girls. They are talented in soo many areas. This political contest has made an impact or maybe even confirmed for many of my students what they can’t articulate; that there are no boundaries for them and even if they don’t “win”, who is to stop her from doing what she chooses to do.
Susanne "The Color of Success" Gray Rice
Go Doves!!!

Patti Binder said...

Swoon.......comment love from the Pres herself!

Thanks Susanne. I know you are doing great work with the next generation of Lady Doves....can't wait to meet them!

Autumn said...

How wonderful to stumble upon this post. Susanne Gray was the first woman I voted for as well. As a white woman - then teenager- who had transferred from a predominately white girls' school to Western High, an all-girls' public school wherein I was in the racial minority, was an amazing opportunity. I feel very proud to have been among such amazing women at Western and to have -early on in my life- had the racial 'divide' become a bridge.