Black Women in the White House
Rogers served as the first Black Social Secretary for a little over a year before resigning from her high-profile post. Many said she was responsible for bringing a hip, accessible aura to the White House by planning lavish dinner parties and concerts featuring Earth, Wind & Fire, Fergie, and Ziggy Marley. Rogers’ sense of style (she’s often in the front row of fashion shows) is praised as often as her business savvy which helped her land a position as CEO of Johnson Publishing Co. “People think, ‘Wait a minute, you can’t be this stylish and intelligent, too.’ I take people out of their comfort zone,” Rogers said.
While she no longer works for the President, Sutphen was the first Black woman to become Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy. During her time in the White House, she was a key player in setting the tone of the administration’s domestic and international relations policy. “I felt the country was at a crossroads. We could start tackling profound problems that have been brewing for years, like our inability to educate our kids, a dysfunctional health-care system, our addiction to foreign oil. These problems tear at our ability to have a prosperous future," Sutphen said. A 10-year diplomat, she also worked for President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council. For now, she is taking a break from politics to work in the private sector as the head of macro analysis for UBS Wealth Management.
Dr. Regina Benjamin
Benjamin is the first Black woman to be named Surgeon General of the United States. The Alabama native provides the country with scientific information on how to improve our health and wellness. She is no stranger to breaking records—she was the first physician under age 40 and the first Black woman to be elected to the American Medical Association Board of Trustees and the first Black woman to be president of a state medical society in the U.S. In 2009, President Obama applauded her dedication to public service by saying, “When people couldn’t pay, she didn’t charge them. When the clinic wasn’t making money, she didn’t take a salary for herself. When Hurricane George destroyed the clinic in 1998, she made house calls to all her patients while it was rebuilt. When Hurricane Katrina destroyed it again and left most of her town homeless, she mortgaged her house and maxed out her credit cards to rebuild that clinic for a second time.”
Rice is the first Black woman to become the United States Ambassador to the United Nations. Recently, she’s been instrumental in the Obama administration’s call for Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi to step down from office. Rice, a three-sport high school athlete, is no stranger to pressure. She graduated from Stanford University and New College, Oxford before working for Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and former President Bill Clinton. In 1985, when Rice won the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, she said, “I am very aware of being black and female because that’s what I am. And I think it is very important for other black students to be aware of the scholarship program and see it as a good opportunity for them.”
Dr. Margaret Hamburg
In 2009, President Obama appointed Hamburg as the 21st Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration making her the first Black woman to hold this post. Hamburg’s agency regulates the manufacture and sale of food, drug, cosmetic and vitamin goods. At age 36, she successfully managed New York City’s wellbeing as its youngest health commissioner ever. Setting records is in her blood as Hamburg’s mother, Beatrix, was the first Black woman to attend Vassar and to earn a medical degree from Yale University.
Along with Rice, Jackson is the only other Black woman to hold cabinet-rank in this administration. She currently serves as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency where she champions for a cleaner Earth for the country’s most vulnerable citizens. Recently, Jackson has taken up the fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When she arrived in Washington to assume her duties, Jackson described the sister network shared by the Black women in the White House: “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. I don’t have sisters so I always loved close girlfriends. They have made it much, much easier for the first few weeks here.”
Barnes is the first Black woman to head the Domestic Policy Council. She began her career as a lawyer and has battled on behalf of civil rights and women’s rights for decades. It seems like Washington can’t get enough of Barnes— her wedding was profiled in the New York Times style section and Washingtonian magazine named her one of ten well dressed women in 2007. She was quoted saying, “The best life advice I’ve received is also the best fashion advice: Be authentic. You shouldn’t wear it just because it’s in style or looks good on somebody else. You have to know who you are and honor that.”
“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,” said Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. She serves as Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement and has known both the President and First Lady since 1991 when she hired Michelle Obama (then Robinson) to work for Chicago mayor Richard Daley. Jarrett, as head of the White House Council on Women and Girls, released a statistical report early this week that revealed women still earn 75 percent of what men do and women of color earn even less.
This list would not be complete without mention of the first Black First Lady. She takes care of her husband and children, generates a national dialogue on healthy living through her Let’s Move campaign, campaigns for military families, and looks great doing it. And while Mrs. Obama has been criticized recently for her fashion and lifestyle choices, she has said in the past that she doesn’t pay attention to negative comments. “One of the lessons that I grew up with was to always stay true to yourself and never let what somebody else says distract you from your goals. And so when I hear about negative and false attacks, I really don’t invest any energy in them, because I know who I am.”
Ladies in the White House
Behind every strong man is a strong woman and the White House is no exception. Although, in this case, President Barack Obama has an entire team of accomplished women to help him keep things moving. The President acknowledged the power of female achievement by proclaiming March Women’s History Month. Essence.com celebrates the month by recognizing some of the Black women that made history by becoming a “first” under President Obama’s administration. At a time when women are still underrepresented in several professions, here are a group of sisters who continue to shatter the glass ceiling at its highest level: