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Rallying Around Lynch Nomination, Black Women Flex Their Political Muscles

04/06/2015 04:12 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

Glimpse a preview of dynamics that will shape the 2016 election cycle in the contest over Loretta Lynch's nomination as Attorney General. As the first African American woman slated to occupy that office, Lynch signals a degree to which race and gender no longer determine access to political power in the United States. Even more noteworthy, Lynch has not been alone. Organized black women activists have turned out to lend her their voices and their influence. It is this force in American political culture - that of African American women - that will be aimed at debates about race, gender, and politics in 2016. And they will make a difference.

This moment has been a long time in the making. As far back as 1991, black women organized in support of Anita Hill when she took a seat in the Senate chamber and testified against the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Some 1,600 women, organized under the rubric of "African-American Women in Defense of Ourselves," published in newspapers across the country an open letter that denounced the racist and sexist treatment to which Hill was subjected. Thomas would subsequently be confirmed. Still, black women left a record that cast a long shadow over the Court's newest Justice as he took the bench.

Two years later, in 1993, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights nominee Lani Guinier never saw the inside of the Senate chamber. After weeks of political wrangling, President Bill Clinton withdrew her nomination even before Guinier had testified. Her views on voting rights, critics said, were so radical that they should bar Guinier's appointment. Guinier, understanding that she had been defeated by way of ideas about her race and gender, explained she was "vilified as a mad woman with strange hair...a strange name and strange ideas." Her hundreds of supporters, many of whom signed a petition that endorsed her confirmation, watched as Guinier withdrew her name from consideration before a phalanx of reporters. Guinier would resume her teaching and scholarship, inspiring the careers of many, including younger black women.

In 2008, black women were galvanized during the Hilary Clinton-Barack Obama contest. As Americans debated the relative relevance of race and gender to politics, African American women asserted their unique place at the crossroads of the question. Still, some observers preferred conjuring up fictional black women rather than confronting those in their midst. Such was the case when feminist Gloria Steinem sought to weigh in on the primary season. Steinem's view was that gender was a greater liability than was race in American politics. To make her point, Steinem invented for the New York Times an imaginary woman candidate, Achola Obama. Such a politician, Steinem argued, because of gender could never hope for the sort of success that her male counterpart, Barack, was enjoying. Black women fired back. There was no need to invent Achola when real black women -- including presidential candidates from Shirley Chisholm to Carol Mosely Braun and Cynthia McKinney - were living examples of how race and gender shaped political viability. On television, in print, and around the blogosphere, black women commentators took Steinem to task for her parody of them and their role in American political culture.

Tuning in to Loretta Lynch's January 2015 Senate hearing, there was no mistaking the depth of her support. The nominee took her seat at a sparsely appointed table, poised to field questions from Senate committee members. It was a stock tableau, except for the field of red that was Lynch's back drop. The members of the black Delta Sigma Theta sorority filled the chamber adorned in their signature color - jackets, sweaters, blouses, suits, and hats - all of which signaled that black women were present and intended to exercise their political muscles in support of Lynch. A former Delta president, Thelma Daley, explained: "We're going to flood the people in Congress and speak in newspapers... We need to keep the pressure on."

That pressure included a media campaign that kept Lynch's confirmation on the nation's front burner. A search for the hashtag #LorettaLynch reveals how organized black women continued to promote the nominee. Senate leaders found themselves on the receiving end of social media missives and television commentary. Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, stands out for having used her influence to press lawmakers to act on Lynch's confirmation. From Twitter to MSNBC's The Reid Report, Ifill's message was consistent: "When an African-American woman of this stature who appears fully prepared is delayed, we should recognize that women are watching, that African-American women are watching and civil rights leaders are watching."

138 days after her nomination, with the Senate readying to recess and Lynch's confirmation stalled, the black women's campaign that began in the Senate chamber pressed on. The Republican majority signaled it would not act, leading black women to meet inaction with action. A group of some 20 women marched to the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Theirs was a coalition of leaders for whom advocacy of Lynch's nomination was an exercise of political influence. Present were representatives of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, the Women's Global Initiative, ministers, and elected officials. Their message was, as Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner put it, "We will not be moved, we will not go back, we will not stop," even as the Senate adjourned, putting off Lynch's confirmation until the next session.

Loretta Lynch's nomination remains unresolved. Still, her coalition of black women supporters continues to define a political agenda on multiple fronts. Just this week, for example, The Black Women's Roundtable issued its annual report, documenting the year's challenges and triumphs for African American women. Come 2016, this group expects to have ensured that Loretta Lynch is Attorney General of the United States. And as another presidential campaign gets underway, there will be no need for pundits to invent fictitious black women. Black women, working at the intersection of race and gender, will be speaking for themselves.