The dominant narrative of Barack Obama’s inauguration is that it represents the triumph of civil rights for African-Americans. And it does, undeniably. It’s a transcendent moment in America’s tortured history of race relations.
But there’s another, unacknowledged narrative. This one is about the role of men and women in the world, and about shoring up the patriarchal order. It’s about putting women in their place.
Throughout the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama’s candidacy was framed as America’s chance to elect the first black man to the highest office in the land. That was the narrative that dominated the media and shaped the public’s response. But the nation also had a chance last year to elect the first woman president or vice-president. That opportunity, however, was rejected, and not just at the ballot box. There was no glowing media narrative about women’s rights, no discussion of how the nation could redeem its history of female oppression and finally live up to the spirit of equality.
What we saw instead was a mass outpouring of sexism. Clinton was crucified as a nag and a bitch. Palin was ridiculed as a bimbo. Both candidates were routinely referred to as “cunts.” Feminism-free women raced to distance themselves from the two pariahs, affirming loudly that they would much rather support the gloriously historic candidacy of Barack Obama.
The message was clear. America was ready to take a momentous step in its racial history and scrub away at least some of the stain of second-class citizenship from black men. But the story for women — all women, of all races — was quite different. There would be no liberation for women from their prescribed roles, no elevation to a place of equality with men. The Hillary Nutcracker and the Sarah Palin Inflatable Sex Doll told us everything we needed to know about women’s proper place in America’s social order.
The Inauguration on Tuesday reflected both narratives. On one level it was a joyous celebration of racial progress, the realization of a long-cherished dream. But the secondary, implied message was that last year’s threat to the patriarchal order had been successfully squelched. The new president is a man — a darker-skinned man than before, but still a man. His wife, who has already announced that her only role will be as “mom-in-chief,” promises to be a First Lady in the mold of Jackie Kennedy or even Mamie Eisenhower. (Given that Michelle Obama declines to call herself a feminist, and said last year that a woman with an adulterous husband isn’t fit to be president, this is perhaps not surprising.) The invocation was delivered by Rick Warren, the nation’s most high-profile advocate for the belief that women belong under their husbands’ thumbs. And Obama was sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts, an anti-feminist who argues that women don’t even deserve equal pay for equal work. Of course Obama didn’t choose Roberts to officiate, as he did Warren, but he is on record with his keen admiration for the man.
What we’re celebrating this week, then, is that our patriarchy is now officially biracial. That’s certainly a tremendous improvement, but let’s do be realistic about what it means — and what it doesn’t mean. In a patriarchy, women derive their status from men. Men are the primary agents of power, with women in the role of subsidiary satellites. With Barack Obama in the White House, this basic structure hasn’t changed; it’s just that the composition of the classes is new. Black boys, like white boys, can now realistically aspire to be president. And black girls, like white girls, can now realistically aspire to be…the First Lady. That’s how patriarchy works.
On the bright side, these things do follow a pattern. In the past, progress for black men has always been followed by progress for women (of all races), even if a lag of several decades intervened. Black men were granted the Constitutional right to vote in 1870, and suffrage for women was written into law 50 years later.
So perhaps history will repeat itself. Maybe in another half century America will finally elect its first woman president.