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Sisterhood of Powerful Black Women in Washington Politics Comes to the Fore

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Krissah Thompson, Washington Post

monasutphenLike two old girlfriends catching up, they ignored onlookers, hugged and laughed.

Donna Brazile, the political strategist and Washington veteran, peppered Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson with questions.

“How are the kids?” “Have you contacted the church? I don’t go every Sunday but they know me.”

Before she left, Jackson had an open invitation to Brazile’s place for home-cooked red beans and rice, served up every Monday night.

“The sisterhood in this town, there’s deep history here,” Jackson said.

The “Obama women” — as African American women who’ve taken big jobs in his administration have been nicknamed — mark another step in the long journey of black women from outsiders to gatekeepers in political Washington. They have quietly entered their jobs with little attention paid to the fact that they are the largest contingent of high-ranking black women to work for a president.

Many are firsts — as in the first black woman to run the Domestic Policy Council, the first black EPA chief and the first black woman to be deputy chief of staff. Last week, Obama tapped Margaret (Peggy) Hamburg to lead the Food and Drug Administration. If confirmed, Hamburg — who is biracial (her mother is African American, her father Jewish) — will also be a first.

Seven of about three dozen senior positions on President Obama’s team are filled by African American women. Veterans in town see them as part of the steady evolution of power for black women, not only in the White House but also across the country — in the business world, in academia, in policy circles.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a District native who served in the Carter administration, said the significance of Obama sending Valerie Jarrett to represent the administration at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, days after he took office, was not lost on her. There, Jarrett was introduced by economist Klaus Schwab as “President Obama’s personal representative; influential adviser; trusted confidante. . . . When she speaks, she speaks really with his voice.”

To Norton, it was an indication of the broad authority that black women now wield.

“I’m not sure there’s ever been a black woman who has enjoyed as much of the president’s confidence as Valerie Jarrett. She has not been compartmentalized and is used in a variety of ways that I think is a first,” Norton said. “The Obama women are a sign of how far we’ve come.”

Inside the young administration, the women said they have been slammed with work and left with little time to think about their place in history. But there are moments.

When Jackson, with bodyguard in tow, walks through the corridors of the EPA’s vast complex in the Federal Triangle, she invariably is stopped by one of her employees, often an African American woman, who says, “Thank you for being here.” She is reminded not only of the history Obama made but also of the history she is making. Black women make up about 192,000 of the more than 1.7 million members of the federal workforce, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

“It’s an indication that I’m one of theirs,” Jackson said.

It’s at church on Sundays that Melody Barnes, who heads Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, is reminded. So many people want to stop and talk that her receiving line at the end of service is often as long as the pastor’s.

“I certainly feel it when someone my grandfather’s age stops me to say, ‘Sweetheart, I’m proud of you,’ but at the same time we are here to do a job,” Barnes said. “For the most part, when we walk into the West Wing, we are focused on that job throughout the day.”

Barnes was a principal figure behind the passage of the $787 billion stimulus package, held interviews with the media and called on allies in Congress — where she worked for many years as chief counsel for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) on the Judiciary Committee. Her next priorities are to help shepherd plans for universal health care and improving public education.

Mona Sutphen, the president’s deputy chief of staff and a foreign affairs expert, has been an advocate for loosening the long-standing Cuban embargo. Her ideas became law last week when less restrictive travel and trade rules were added to a spending bill passed by Congress.

White House Social Secretary Desirée Rogers parses guest lists, largely shapes the Obamas’ social profile and orchestrates the Washington dance of dinners where politics are served around the table. In all of the busy-ness, there are times, Rogers said, when her old friend Jarrett will stop her in the hallway and dwell for a second on the import of their experience as African American women in the top echelons of the White House.

“I’m so fast. I’m always moving, and Valerie will say to me, ‘Slow down. Just think about what we’re doing,’ ” Rogers said. “It is important to maintain those friends and relationships — that lifeblood that sustain you as you work in a very historic time.”

Not so long ago, the appointment of a black woman to a senior position in any administration was a historic marker, a first. But the collective arrival of the women serving in senior positions in Obama’s presidency has been noted only in small ways and mostly within the “sisterhood.” A few weeks before Obama’s inauguration, one anonymous admirer sent out an e-mail with photographs of seven senior staffers under the title “Sisters in the White House.”

It listed Jarrett, Jackson, Barnes, Sutphen, Rogers, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and Cassandra Butts, deputy White House counsel.

It read like a dishy letter passed among girlfriends: “Did you know this sister is Valerie Jarrett, Transition Team Co-Chair? Did you know she’s the 4th generation of educated professionals in her family and is a Stanford and U of M graduate? (A former corporate attorney, as the Chief of Staff in the Daley Administration, she hired an Ivy-Leaguer named Michelle Robinson!)”

“Most of us had met each other, but seeing the e-mail made me step back and think this is a really diverse and compelling group of women,” Sutphen said.

The message was a small nod to progress, a barometer of the advancements of women and minorities.

“It’s like we have a garden out there, and it’s been watered,” Norton said. “Black women have been preparing themselves for this day. They are more than ready.”

Women earn about two-thirds of the associate and bachelor’s degrees awarded to black students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and Bureau of Labor data show that more than 2.6 million black women were employed in management and professional jobs last year. The women working for Obama have helped run Chicago city government, led nonprofit organizations, held top jobs at think tanks and influential positions on Capitol Hill.

Even so, women and minorities still lack representation in proportion to their numbers on the federal level. In Congress, only 90 members are women, 42 are African American, 28 are Latino and nine are Asian. Of late, black women have done better in Cabinet-level appointments and senior White House positions. President Bill Clinton appointed two black women to his Cabinet and several served in senior White House positions. President George W. Bush named Condoleezza Rice his national security adviser and later secretary of state, making her the highest-ranking black woman in the country’s history.

It was only 32 years ago that President Jimmy Carter appointed Patricia Roberts Harris to serve as secretary of housing and urban development, making her the first black woman in the presidential line of succession. Harris said at the time of her HUD appointment that her gender and race made her a “two for one” and called the hoopla around her nomination the result of “tragic exclusion.” In stories about her experience as the first, she described herself as lonely.

Carter later named Eleanor Holmes Norton head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and she recalls being “marketed” as the first woman to hold the position.

She still has a framed photo in her congressional office of herself posing with both Shirley Chisholm and Coretta Scott King, who came to see Norton and celebrate her EEOC post.

A cadre of black women were introduced to national politics during the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s unsuccessful bids for the presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988. They included Brazile, the first African American to direct a major political campaign, and Minyon Moore, who was an assistant to Clinton and served as director of White House political affairs and the Office of Public Liaison.

“We kind of burst onto the scene,” Moore said. “It became more normal to see an African American woman in a position of power.”

In their days in the Clinton administration, Moore would lean on Alexis Herman, the first African American woman to serve as labor secretary, and Hazel O’Leary, the first to serve as energy secretary.

“You never felt alone,” Moore said.

Now, the Obama women call on their predecessors and say they are getting to know one another as they find their way in Washington. Jarrett and Rogers have a deep personal friendship forged in Chicago. Others are acquaintances or work friends who met during the Clinton administration, on Capitol Hill or during Obama’s campaign. Some are hoping lasting bonds will form, which could leave Washington with a good old sisters network.

“We are fortunate that we are in a time where it isn’t new that African American women would have important roles in Washington. It is not becoming old hat, but it is something people are more comfortable with,” Butts said. “It is both absolutely as it should be, and it is also a bit surreal.”

Butts put an interview on hold to pick up a call from Cheryl Mills, who in the Clinton administration became the first black women to serve as deputy White House counsel. Mills, now Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s chief of staff, understands Butts’s job and the dynamic of working in the White House bubble.

When Jackson moved from New Jersey to take up her EPA post, she phoned Herman, who now owns a District-based company that advises corporations on workplace diversity.

“She’s been through some of what I’m seeing,” Jackson said. “She knows what it’s like to have to figure out this town. . . . It’s definitely nice to be in a place where there are more of us.”

Jackson said the advice Herman gave her is private but, as a whole, the Washington sister-friends have done everything from recommend churches and hairstylists to offer fashion advice and babysitting services, Jackson said.

“As one of them put it: ‘We’re honest. We will tell you, that suit does not work. It makes your butt look big. That would work for somebody else but not you. No, don’t show up looking like that,’ ” Jackson said, smiling. “I don’t have sisters so I always loved close girlfriends. They have made it much, much easier for the first few weeks here.”

They also share hard-earned wisdom for surviving the political game.

O’Leary passed on a story about her early days at the Energy Department. During her first month, she had a poster made with photos of all the previous department secretaries and herself. Face after face was a white man, ending with O’Leary’s picture. The line at the top of the poster read: “This is not your father’s Department of Energy.”

“In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have done that,” she said with a laugh.

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