An interview with Helen Thomas: Clinton and Obama aren't tokens, so don't treat them like they are

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Part of being a token--a minority presence chosen to represent a larger group-- as Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote in her classic Men and Women of the Corporation, is that the token receives special attention and special treatment in exchange for being expected to conform to certain stereotypes and acting a certain way. As the presidential race has progressed, both Clinton and Obama have risen above token status. This sounds facile now but imagine saying it several years ago! I don't know about you, but in recent months I have ceased to think of Hillary as a "woman candidate" or Obama as a mixed-race or black candidate. Maybe it's purely the length of the cycle and the resulting familiarity with both contenders, but for me, the race-gender politics angle is now less germane and less interesting (but like many Americans, I struggle not to think of McCain as the "old" candidate).

On the flip side, if Clinton vs. Obama were a typical political race between two white men, no one would balk at the "divisiveness."

At the Women Action & the Media conference this weekend, I had the privilege to interview Helen Thomas, the 88 year old legendary journalist and "Patron Saint of not shutting up." I asked Thomas what she thought about recent claims that Hillary Clinton should drop out of the Democratic race because Clinton's presence is creating divisiveness in the Party.

Helen Thomas said "what's wrong with a little divisiveness-diversity- and divisiveness is a good thing." She later said, "If I were her, I'd hang in there and fight to the end-win lose or draw- fight the good fight - if you've hung in there that long stay in to the end - what's wrong with division? Is everyone supposed to be in lockstep? I can't help but admire her grit. Maybe it is all over but I wouldn't listen."

White guy politics as usual is well-acquainted about divisiveness. It's the name of the game. When you're part of the dominant culture, the rules of behavior are clear. But because women and minorities who run are usually still seen as tokens, it's harder for the gloves to come off. Often, women candidates are recruited to run in races against a scandalized opponent on incumbent because it's harder to attack a woman and voters think women are more morally upright. But according to Helen Thomas the press and the campaigns are playing normal "hardball" and this is healthy because neither Obama nor Hillary is a token on behalf of their race or gender.

I think Helen Thomas is right: neither Obama nor Clinton is a token. They're full-fledged mainstream candidates and thus, the gloves are coming off. But many of us are still squeamish if gloves come off around a black man and a woman. It's a new experience in political life. For example, the verbal sparring I experience among men in a competitive workplace rarely incorporates women on the team. "You can't talk to a woman like that!" is a familiar refrain. But when the woman is running for president, I guess you can, and maybe you should. I appreciate tough talk around Hillary's recent behavior. It's well-deserved and it's not about her ankles, it's about her bad campaigning. She needs to hear it, I think, especially when it comes to her recent Bosnia whoppers. But when she's asked to leave the campaign, many state her gender makes it easier to ask her to drop out, including the candidate herself. I don't think it's about this. When Bill Clinton employs Hillary's femaleness as a reason why many ask her to drop out when she shouldn't, it rings false to me. It feels like a manipulation of Hillary's gender. It felt like Clinton was trying to "betoken" her when she's not a token woman candidate.

As for Obama's token status, the Jeremiah Wright issue disproved this. When it comes to Obama, I think fewer and fewer voters see a black candidate, they see a good candidate. Voters did not lower their opinion of Obama after the Wright blow-up.

For a longer discussion with Helen Thomas, see Jill Miller Zimon's excellent live blog coverage of Thomas' talk at WAM.

More blogging from the Women, Action and Media Conference in Boston this weekend: Feministing

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