The 2016 election has been historic for any number of reasons, not least of which is the emergence of Hillary Clinton as the first woman to gain the nomination of a major American political party. It’s a fact that often gets glossed over in coverage of a race whose narrative has been dominated by a reality star with a vulgar way with women. But in just over one week, the United States could join countries like Germany, Liberia, Great Britain, India, Israel and even Pakistan, in finally electing a female head of state. As a Black woman covering this campaign, I have been well aware of both its historic nature, and the narratives that could easily be missed if there weren’t correspondents like me “on the bus.” While there are still not enough of us in the newsroom, women, and women of colour, have been key to keeping the narratives of the campaign representative of a country whose demographics and culture are changing fast. Race and ethnicity have been undercurrents in American politics for 240 years. But today, they could have a direct impact on who gets the keys to the White House next January. And yet, the way we talk about politics often glosses over that fact. We talk about “evangelicals” without noting that white and nonwhite evangelicals have polar opposite politics, with the latter mostly siding with Democrats and the former remaining mostly staunch Republicans.
Even the notion of a “gender gap” often excludes the racial dynamic. The fact is that race and gender play a bifurcated role in the outcome of American elections, with a majority of white women — and married white women in particular — voting regularly for Republicans, and a supermajority of Black, Hispanic, and increasingly, Asian-American women siding with Democrats. Mitt Romney won white women by 14 percentage points in 2012; John McCain beat Barack Obama among this group by 7 points in 2008, and George W. Bush won them by 11 points in 2008. And yet, Obama was able to win comfortably, twice, on the strength of his commanding share of the votes of Black, Hispanic, and Asian-American women. This election could see a reversal of that trend. As the number of women accusing Donald Trump of groping and lewd behaviour grows, Democrats are poised to place women of all races on one side of the political aisle. Indeed, Trump is now tied with Clinton among non-collegiate white women, something that hasn’t happened in decades. And Clinton has a commanding lead among college-educated white women who, this year, appear to be voting more like their Black and Latina sisters. This country has a fraught racial legacy that culminated in the election of Barack Obama in 2008. But issues surrounding gender have at times been just as toxic. Women waited 55 years after the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which gave African-American men the right to vote, to see the franchise extended to them. Many formerly enslaved Black women didn’t live to see the day when they could cast a ballot. Meanwhile, Black women have carried a twin burden of racial and gender identity, one that colours the way we are perceived, in the workplace, in politics, and now, in the White House.
Today, Michelle Obama is arguably the most popular public figure in the country (with the possible exception of Bernie Sanders). And she has spoken powerfully to the right of women to be valued and respected as she has stepped forward to help Hillary Clinton win the White House. But there was a time when the first lady wasn’t so beloved — when her patriotism was challenged, along with her husband’s national identity, when she was caricatured by her husband’s opponents as an angry, militant figure unsuited to the role of first lady. But Mrs. Obama has emerged after eight years in the White House as the embodiment of the modern American woman: her style, her poise, her fierce modernity, and her accomplishments — both before and after she and her family entered the White House — combined with her exceptional role modelling as a mother and first lady, have made her arguably the voice of a generation of women of all races. For a Black woman to occupy that space is itself revolutionary. Likewise, Hillary Clinton has occupied every room in the American psyche. She has been loathed and beloved, respected and reviled, and her transition from first lady to a political leader in her own right as a United States senator, then secretary of state, and perhaps soon, president, has involved sour notes that nearly every woman can relate to. She has been “not girly enough,” not wifely enough, too bold, too ambitious, and too secretive for the tastes of many Americans. But her campaign has affirmed the value of smarts and preparation — which every woman at work, at school, and in life, can relate to. Whatever your view of her politics, it’s clear that Hillary Clinton has run a campaign of substance and ferociousness, taking on an opponent who couldn’t be toppled by 16 primary opponents, 15 of them men. If she emerges victorious on November 9, it will be because she did her homework, studied her adversary, learned his weaknesses and exploited them. She will have won, just as much as Trump will have lost. And then, America will likely learn similar lessons about sexism and discomfort over gender through the lens of the first woman president, as the Obamas taught us with regard to race. And I, along with my fellow women and women of colour in media, will be there to help keep those lessons from getting lost in translation.
Joy-Ann Reid is a political analyst for MSNBC and host of AM Joy. She is also the author of the book Fracture: Barack Obama, the Clintons and the Racial Divide (William Morrow/Harper Collins 2015) and a columnist at The Daily Beast.