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An educational edge?: A women’s history month meditation

Do African American women enjoy an educational advantage over
African American men? According to the Frederick D. Patterson Research
Institute of The College Fund/UNCF, Black women are at least earning
more degrees.

In 1993, African American women earned 45,000 B.A. degrees,
compared to 23,505 degrees for African American men. Headlines put it
bluntly: “Black Women Earning College Degrees at Twice the Rate of
Black Men.”

The numerical edge that African American women experience in
education isn’t limited to the bachelor’s degree. More than twice as
many African American women received Ph.D.s in 1995 than in 1975. In
the same time period the number of African American men increased only
slightly — by less than 5 percent.

But before anyone pops out the champagne and concludes that Black
women have got it made and that the number of Black Ph.D.s is soaring,
consider those numbers carefully. In 1995, more than 40,000 doctoral
degrees were awarded. Of those, 872 (2.2 percent) went to African
American men, while 926 (2.3 percent) went to African American women.
In 1975, when some 30,000 degrees were awarded, 851 went to African
American men, and 360 went to African American women.

Clearly, African American women experience a numerical edge in the
number of degrees awarded. Does this translate to an edge in
professional attainment, in societal power and influence, to an
advantage in another realm? Do these degrees Black women get protect us
from the stereotypes and glass ceilings that limit our achievement?

One might ask Alexis Herman, the stellar African American woman
that President Clinton nominated to join his cabinet as Secretary of
Labor in January, 1997. More than six weeks after she was nominated,
Ms. Herman was the only Clinton nominee not to have her confirmation
hearings scheduled.

After concentrated pressure from women’s groups, Herman’s
confirmation hearings were scheduled for March 18, and by the time this
article is printed, she may well have been confirmed. But for more than
six weeks, Herman twisted in the wind, her record of achievement, her
associations, her reputation picked apart.

I’m not playing the race card. The gender card will do, as well.
Remember Zoe Baird, Lani Guinier, Joycelyn Elders. Though President
Clinton has had a habit of high-tailing it away from nominees whom the
Congress raises questions about, regardless of their gender, why is it
that the most wrenching cases have been cases where women have been
left hanging out to dry? Is it because women’s lives are less valued,
women’s reputations less sacred, women’s contributions more easily
shrugged off?

In the case of Alexis Herman, this certainly seems to be so. One
might argue that were it not for Ms. Herman, Bill Clinton might not
enjoy the level of support he has enjoyed in the African American
community. As Deputy Assistant to the President for Public Liaison, a
Cabinet-level position in which she performed with distinction, Herman
made sure that the public felt it had access to White House policy and
decision making.

Now that Presidential fundraising procedures are being questioned,
Herman has been tainted with the allegation that many of those who came
to the White House were donors. I can share, though, that the twenty
leaders of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional
Women’s Clubs, Inc., who attended a White House briefing in July, 1996,
went without checkbooks or contributions, but with much curiosity about
ways African American women’s issues were being addressed by the White

While the larger community may not be familiar with Alexis Herman,
she is a hero for many African American women. At 29, she headed the
Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau under President Jimmy Carter. When
she left the Carter administration, she started a successful human
resource management firm — A. Herman and Associates. Because of the
work she did in training African American women for the labor market
and for alien corporate cultures, thousands of women owe their jobs and
careers to her efforts. As a successful entrepreneur, Herman was also
involved in civic affairs and civil rights, both as a vice-president of
the National Council of Negro Women and as an influential member of
Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. She was Ron Brown’s deputy at the
Democratic National Committee and the first woman CEO of the Democratic
National Convention in 1992.

All those career accomplishments, and all of the degrees, didn’t
shield Herman from the disdainful treatment she’s received from Vermont
Senator James Jeffords (R) on her Cabinet nomination. Most agree that
if heard, Herman will be confirmed in her position. Fairness dictates
that she be heard, that she should have been heard before now. History
reminds us that women, especially African American women, aren’t often
fairly treated.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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