Tuesday, January 8, 2008

"Women Are Never Front-Runners"

Important op-ed by Gloria Steinem in today's New York Times. I'm pasting the whole thing here since you might have trouble with the web link to the Times if you don't have a login (it's free though, so I will also post the link for you in case you want to start reading the Times online).

Read. Discuss.


The woman in question became a lawyer after some years as a community organizer, married a corporate lawyer and is the mother of two little girls, ages 9 and 6. Herself the daughter of a white American mother and a black African father — in this race-conscious country, she is considered black — she served as a state legislator for eight years, and became an inspirational voice for national unity.

Be honest: Do you think this is the biography of someone who could be elected to the United States Senate? After less than one term there, do you believe she could be a viable candidate to head the most powerful nation on earth?

If you answered no to either question, you’re not alone. Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House. This country is way down the list of countries electing women and, according to one study, it polarizes gender roles more than the average democracy.

That’s why the Iowa primary was following our historical pattern of making change. Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter).

If the lawyer described above had been just as charismatic but named, say, Achola Obama instead of Barack Obama, her goose would have been cooked long ago. Indeed, neither she nor Hillary Clinton could have used Mr. Obama’s public style — or Bill Clinton’s either — without being considered too emotional by Washington pundits.

So why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one? The reasons are as pervasive as the air we breathe: because sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was; because anything that affects males is seen as more serious than anything that affects “only” the female half of the human race; because children are still raised mostly by women (to put it mildly) so men especially tend to feel they are regressing to childhood when dealing with a powerful woman; because racism stereotyped black men as more “masculine” for so long that some white men find their presence to be masculinity-affirming (as long as there aren’t too many of them); and because there is still no “right” way to be a woman in public power without being considered a you-know-what.

I’m not advocating a competition for who has it toughest. The caste systems of sex and race are interdependent and can only be uprooted together. That’s why Senators Clinton and Obama have to be careful not to let a healthy debate turn into the kind of hostility that the news media love. Both will need a coalition of outsiders to win a general election. The abolition and suffrage movements progressed when united and were damaged by division; we should remember that.

I’m supporting Senator Clinton because like Senator Obama she has community organizing experience, but she also has more years in the Senate, an unprecedented eight years of on-the-job training in the White House, no masculinity to prove, the potential to tap a huge reservoir of this country’s talent by her example, and now even the courage to break the no-tears rule. I’m not opposing Mr. Obama; if he’s the nominee, I’ll volunteer. Indeed, if you look at votes during their two-year overlap in the Senate, they were the same more than 90 percent of the time. Besides, to clean up the mess left by President Bush, we may need two terms of President Clinton and two of President Obama.

But what worries me is that he is seen as unifying by his race while she is seen as divisive by her sex.

What worries me is that she is accused of “playing the gender card” when citing the old boys’ club, while he is seen as unifying by citing civil rights confrontations.

What worries me is that male Iowa voters were seen as gender-free when supporting their own, while female voters were seen as biased if they did and disloyal if they didn’t.

What worries me is that reporters ignore Mr. Obama’s dependence on the old — for instance, the frequent campaign comparisons to John F. Kennedy — while not challenging the slander that her progressive policies are part of the Washington status quo.

What worries me is that some women, perhaps especially younger ones, hope to deny or escape the sexual caste system; thus Iowa women over 50 and 60, who disproportionately supported Senator Clinton, proved once again that women are the one group that grows more radical with age.

This country can no longer afford to choose our leaders from a talent pool limited by sex, race, money, powerful fathers and paper degrees. It’s time to take equal pride in breaking all the barriers. We have to be able to say: “I’m supporting her because she’ll be a great president and because she’s a woman.”

Correction: An earlier version of this Op-Ed stated that Senator Edward Kennedy had endorsed Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. He has not made an endorsement in the 2008 presidential race.

Gloria Steinem is a co-founder of the Women’s Media Center.


Mother Laura said...

Thanks for posting this, Jane. I need to reflect on it some more because it is such a mix of good and worrisome.

I agree with her basic point that gender was much of the reason for Obama's triumph in Iowa--I never thought Clinton had a serious chance, was amazed when she temporarily took the lead, and unsurprised when this happened. And it's especially annoying that this is being ignored. And it is true that Clinton has much more experience which was my deciding reason for going with her, despite her real problems (also I read on a WOC blog some time back that she has been a bit better on race issues than Obama has on gender issues, though this was before the below the belt drug accusation stuff). Like Steinem, of course, I would gladly support either and think he would be great down the road.

However, she follows the common white feminist pattern of defining gender as the most serious barrier and downplaying the effects of racism, even as she uses a hypothetical Black/biracial female Obama as a counter example. And she mentions abolition and suffrage without acknowledging the rank racism of white women arguing for suffrage because lowly colored men had it, or any other aspect of the racism endemic in white feminism to this day....This pattern rightfully infuriates WOC as I have come to learn recently from serious blogreading and is the reason why if I end up linking to her I will be very careful in trying to analyze all the different aspects of it.

johnieb said...

Yes, Jane, though I'd seen it elsewhere.

As a person of no color other than "White" and mostly comfortable with being "Male" much of the time, I can only add "and age, and class affiliation." The fragmentation of the population along such
"boundaries" seems to be part of the problem; who benefits most from this circumstance?

I think the U S media--the amount I allow to filter past my defenses--seems to have been more systematically, powerfully, and persuasively hostile to Clinton on Sexist grounds, and for decades before Obama was in politics. The lead says it, as it should: "Women are never front-runners." Clinton has been bushwhacked all her life for being female, whereas the rap against Obama, in my insular New England (God save the Commonwealth!), is "Too young" not "Too dark or foreign".

The whole process--Primaries, The Parties and Candidacies, Corporatism in media, Policy implementation and review--seems to me in bad need of a radical overhaul, but I didn't come to that recently.

Mother Laura said...

It's true that he gets far fewer explicit attacks because of race than she does for gender, but IMHO that is also because sexism is a more acceptable and openly displayed prejudice where explicit racism is taboo among well informed people and falsely believed to be not a problem any more. So liberals/progressives including mainstream white feminist leaders have a very difficult time seeing it in themselves (I include myself in this till very recently and I am just dipping my toes into learning and trying to become a real ally).

I blogged a while back about a letter I wrote to Popular Mechanics about an article and photo spread that was both racist and sexist. They copped to the sexism right away and apologized, much to my surprise, but insisted that having every photo in the article (and virtually the entire magazine) be white was completely coincidental. I think it's precisely because we find racism so horrible that we can't admit it's there so much of the time.

The Clinton staffer who tried to brand Obama as a drug dealer and the white male candidate--I forget which--who invoked Islamophobia while pretending to be diverse "isn't it great his middle name is *Hussein*) both relied on racist stereotypes about Black men.

Of the WOC blogs I read, Diary of an Anxious Black Woman, had an excellent analysis of Steinem's blindness on the race issue and also pointed out that if Obama somehow did win ignorant people would then claim it as proof that racism doesn't exist any more.

johnieb said...

I have been involved in what we then called "the Movement", the ideal of which to many was the Student Non_Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC), since 1964. I grew up in the Apartheid South. I joined my parish twelve years ago when I visited on a Sunday the UnLearning Racism Committee was meeting, and I was invited to join in, and did.

Not to brag, just to say I notice many forms of talking about "racism"; if, as we believed then and I do yet, that we must somehow walk together, or kill each other off walking separately, I believe it depends on a number of discourses in contemporary U S Culture, this being one of them, as another, related discourse is taking place over the U S: youth or experience, black or woman.

I incline somewhat to Clinton, despite her votes on the war and foreign policy in general; it seems overly "Big Power Ugh" Amerocentric, but as a Vietnam combat veteran, I may be overly sensitive with regards to the Monster Which Ate Everything: the World Jabba.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Clinton is not my first choice. I've searched my heart, and I truly do not believe it is because she is a woman. Having said that, if she is the Democratic nominee, I will support her wholeheartedly.

Jane R said...

Thanks for your good comments, all. And sorry to be short with mine -- I'm in a busy set of days suddenly and also grabbing and protecting some writing time before classes start up again after the weekend. Mimi, Clinton is not my first choice either. But I do think Steinem makes some very important points and they stopped me in my tracks. Laura, yes, yes, yes -- I teach both feminist theology and African American religion and theology (the former in the fall semester, the latter in the spring semester) and in both courses we look at this intersection of race and gender --and socio-economic class-- including some of the 19th c. dynamics you spoke of. In a very elementary way, but at least we get some of this stuff out on the table. Very complicated and painful. (Nothing like teaching the hot issues: race, sex, gender, class, religion, and sexual orientation all in the same course!) And also exciting. But it's harder still when we are dealing (or not dealing) with these dynamics in our churches and in our political process. I'm grateful for Steinem's op-ed for helping us to examine our own reactions as well as the candidates themselves. Life is never dull -- as you well know, JohnieB, and all of you. Sorry if this isn't too coherent. Had some churchy work (pastoral care and then a pre-diocesan convention meeting) and then I needed to get some help from a couple of friends up the road to finish up Clumber's whiskey cake (it's called "get the holiday food OUT of the house!")(at least until my annual Mardi Gras crepes party) and now I must get a little writing done before toddling off to bed. Thank you again. Laura, stop by again! Nice to have you visit. I must go and see if the City of God appeal totals are in before I settle down to work... I know, it's late, but I got up late.

Jane R said...

P.S. I haven't had a chance to discuss the op-ed "live" but will be interested to hear how friends and colleagues and family have reacted and whether and how their reactions have differed based on their race or gender or region. (Yes I do mean region here, not religion.)

johnieb said...

It didn't occur to me you meant anything else; what about you, Mimi?
Alas, in my original home, even the Italians are Baptist, and they're aint (funny, but the sound's there) but two kinds: "Us and Y'all.", Southern and National.


Mother Laura said...

I'd be very interested to hear if Steinem has said anything after Clinton's victory in NH.

Jane, saw your latest post and prayers are on the way....