Editor’s Note: This piece was first published at The Negress. You can find Erica Brazelton on Twitter at @ericabrazelton.
In recent piece titled “The Feminist Case Against A Woman President,” Amy Schiller critiques Nation columnist Jessica Valenti for proposing that she would vote for a female president in 2016. In her piece, “Why I’m Voting For Her,” Valenti essentially said that she was “fed up” with the endless cycle of sexism and thought electing America’s first woman—while acknowledging that women candidates do not guarantee feminist outcome—would be a “hopeful reminder of progress made.”
Schiller’s response essentially argued three points:
1.) Electing a woman as president (for example, Hillary Clinton) would still be a simplistic solution to sexism, as well as an empty symbolic gesture.
2.) That a female president isn’t actually needed for feminist progress because its gains have mostly been realized (using the backlash around Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments as evidence of said gains.)
3.) That a woman in office would do no more to combat sexism than Barack Obama’s presidency has done to combat racism, conveniently quoting Frederick C. Harris as saying:
“…Mr. Obama, in his first two years in office, talked about race less than any Democratic president had since 1961. From racial profiling to mass incarceration to affirmative action, his comments have been sparse and halting…when it comes to the Obama presidency and black America, symbols and substance have too often been assumed to be one and the same.”
Okay. So many problems here.
For one, Schiller largely trivialized the importance of symbolism and visibility.
Symbolism matters. In a country with very specific controlling images and historical connotations that attach themselves to certain bodies, seeing said bodies in spaces not originally reserved for them matters. Seeing someone who looks like you grasp forbidden kinds of power and provide a schematic reference for possibility, matters. The concept of fictive kinship that creates a sense of pride when one of Us has Made It, matters.
Visibility is also an extremely powerful concept. In a culture that sees marginalized people only through peep shows of white supremacist, patriarchal perspectives—that are always obscured through bias—lack of full recognition becomes a marker of second-class citizenship.
For marginalized bodies to enter public spaces and demand visibility not filtered through oppressive gazes—to be seen in any autonomous way at all, matters.
But here’s what also matters:
Barack Obama as the president of the United States has been one of the most vivid confirmations of racism in a post–Jim Crow America.
Folks usually critique Obama for his reluctance to talk about race, and rightfully so. But we usually neglect to acknowledge that while he may avoid explicit racial discourse, it doesn’t mean that no implicit discourse has been made.
Policy-wise, he has done race work: his Affordable Healthcare Act will reduce health disparities for millions of African-Americans and raise Medicaid eligibility. Almost half of undergraduate Pell Grants under the Obama administration were received by black students—higher than any other group. He also signed the Recovery Act in law, which helped keep a disproportionate number of blacks out of poverty through tax credits, increase in food stamps, and funded re-training for the unemployed.