Columns » Autumn Tolbert

On Oprah

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I woke up Monday singing, "I'm Every Woman," the Chaka Kahn song that served as the theme to "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in the early 1990s. After Winfrey's Sunday night speech at the Golden Globes, I, like many women, was moved and motivated. I've long been a fan, and that speech was Winfrey at her best.

By Monday morning, social media was overrun with calls for her to run for president in 2020, but by noon, the backlash was harsh and, frankly, out of proportion. The common complaint was the claim that she's unqualified. The reasons ranged from her celebrity status, to her lack of experience as an elected official, to her wealth and to her lack of control over her weight. Seriously. Only a handful listed the absence of many public positions on political issues and the troubling fact that the woman who championed Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou also promoted the pseudoscience and questionable practices of Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz and anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy.

I get some of the hesitation to embrace Winfrey as a candidate. I, too, am wary of our elevation of celebrities. I'm also not sure a complete political novice is the right person. However, it is frustrating to see many of the same people who are claiming Winfrey is unqualified go gaga over young Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) as a possible candidate because he has spent a few years in Congress, has that good hair and is a skilled orator. Winfrey came from extreme poverty and built a billion-dollar entertainment empire all on her hard work. She is the epitome of the phrase "build your own table." But, if you believe what folks say, she is unqualified to run the country because, unlike Kennedy, she did not come up through the ranks of politics that rewards fundraising, getting re-elected and name recognition over all else.

The current method of electing our officials has failed a large segment of our population. We face high mortality rates for women and infants during childbirth, over-incarceration of our communities of color and a political system that, year after year, is dominated by white men. Since 1789, over 12,000 people have served the U.S. Congress. Only around 40 have been black women. No state has ever elected a black woman as governor. Fewer than a dozen black women have ever held a statewide elected office. Black women are underrepresented as candidates and as elected officials.  

That's why it is especially troubling to see so many, even on the left, flat-out claim that Winfrey is unqualified. I'm not advocating for an Oprah 2020 ticket. It is much too early for that. What I am advocating for is a re-examination of what it means to be qualified to run for public office. Right now, we are using the criteria that are easiest to meet for members of a certain demographic. Compare the number of white male career politicians with the number of black female career politicians. The opportunities are just not there for politicians of color, especially black women. If progressives want to elevate women of color in all levels of politics, they must acknowledge that not everyone will have plotted the same traditional path to public office. They must acknowledge that, in spite of the damage political outsider President Trump is doing to our democracy, there are skills and knowledge obtained from the corporate and nonprofit arenas that can be just as valuable as the skills and knowledge obtained from holding elected office.

Rumor is Winfrey may be interested in running. She may not meet the traditional qualifications, but if we are looking for someone who is smart, motivated and powerful, she is a force. Dismissing Winfrey as a mere "celebrity" or "TV star" is an insult to her accomplishments and influence. Before you say she is a bad choice, first let her talk. Let her tell us what she plans to do and how she plans to get it done. Then, if you do not like what she has to say, come after her for her policies and plans. Don't come after her because she doesn't fit the mold of what we've come to expect.

Winfrey is every woman who reaches the pinnacle of success only to hear that she is not good enough. She's every woman who dares to speak out only to be told to stop rocking the boat. She is every woman who faces far more scrutiny and criticism than her male counterparts. She is every woman. And if she does decide to run, she already has a hell of a campaign theme song.

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