Gloria Steinem: Pitting race against gender

by Racialicious guest contributor Jennifer Fang, originally published at Reappropriate

Since 2004, when rumours abounded over an Obama candidacy, pundits have cast this year’s Democratic election as a battle of identity politics: will Americans choose a Black man or a White woman to be their nominee for president? And by extension, will this finally settle the debate over which is the more subjugated identity: race or gender?

Yesterday morning, Gloria Steinem, influential second-wave feminist, weighed in at the New York Times with an opinion piece titled “Women Are Never Front-Runners”. I guess we can tell where she stands in this debate.

(Incidentally, if women are never front-runners, than how did Clinton get as far as she did on the “inevitable pseudo-incumbent” campaign she’s been running that made her the front-runner for most of last year? I find the headline of this piece to be a wee bit of hyperbole.)

We’ve heard many argue that it’s time for an African American president, and many more argue it’s time for a female president. But, nowhere in the race vs. gender frenzy that has swept the nation has anyone challenged the very validity of the question. How can one compare racism to sexism – and if one tries, where do those of us who are disadvantaged both by our race and by our gender fit in?

In truth, the juxtaposition is disingenuous, divisive, overly simplistic, and ultimately harmful, because it redirects our attention away from efforts to break the White male patriarchy that excludes all the Others, but towards in-fighting where we all compete to see both who’s more oppressed, and who will make it out of that “Oppression Box” first.

Scholars like Steinem have only fueled these divisive attitudes. Though she writes, “I’m not advocating a competition for who has it toughest”, Steinem opens her article with the observation that “gender is probably the most restricting force in American life”. She continues by implying that the race barrier has largely been resolved, because “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”.

While Steinem is correct in observing that women are still oppressed by the gender roles that expect us to remain in the kitchen over the White House, how can we compare those gender roles to the racist expectation that Black men be either athletes or in jail? How does that compare to the plight of Native Americans, who suffer from almost non-existent healthcare or educational opportunities? Or to the on-the-job harassment faced by Asian Americans seen as perpetually untrustworthy and foreign?

Steinem’s argument that women were denied the vote for a half-century after Black men were made voting citizens ignores two truths: 1) had the right for women to vote been included in the 14th and 15th Amendments, those Amendments were unlikely to have passed, and 2) despite being granted the right to vote in the Constitution, it took nearly another century before the Voting Rights Act allowed the majority of African Americans to exercise that right in the face of profoundly institutionalized racism and apartheid. But Steinem essentially argues that these details are irrelevant: because women were not granted the vote when Black men were, Black men face fewer barriers today compared to White women, and thus are less deserving of affirmative action when it comes to the highest position in the country. By extension, Steinem suggests that if White women don’t benefit from a step towards civil rights, than no one should – which is why we need a female president before we need a Black president.

Steinem further suggests that negative treatment (or impossible expectations) of Senator Hillary Clinton stem exclusively from a sexism “as pervasive as the air we breathe”. She notes that a fictional Achola Obama (who, unlike Senator Obama, doesn’t seem to have achieved anything more than state legislator) would not be seen as electable while Senator Barack Obama – by virtue of his gender, says Steinem – is. Not only does this ignore the very “un-electable Obama” argument that has been a core component of Clinton’s stump speeches, but Steinem carelessly paints all criticisms of Senator Clinton with the same sexist brush. She notes “Clinton could not have used Mr. Obama’s public style – or Bill Clinton’s either – without being considered too emotional by Washington pundits”. But, Hillary Clinton has tried: notably in Selma, Alabama earlier this year, when Clinton and Obama delivered back-to-back speeches in neighbouring churches. Obama’s speech was generally heralded as rousing and inspiring. Clinton’s was not criticized as being “too emotional”, but too robotic and fake. In fact, I suspect that Clinton can’t get away with Obama’s or Clinton’s style of speaking not because she’s a woman, but because she’s simply not that charismatic a speaker.

On the question of biology, Steinem again contradicts herself. Though she argues that sexism has remained pervasive because of how it is “still confused with nature” (i.e. women are naturally or biologically different), she goes on to underscore and praise Clinton’s innate differences as a woman by citing how she has “no masculinity to prove”. And when it comes to emotion, Steinem recognizes that Washington pundits are quick to charge female politicians with being “too emotional” but then she lauds Clinton for having “the courage to break the no-tears rule”. Steinem seems to want it front-ways, back-ways, and every ways but Sundays when it comes to Clinton – she believes Clinton deserves our vote in part “because she’s a woman”, while arguing that Clinton shouldn’t be seen as “divisive by her sex”.

But the contradictions on how to consider Senator Clinton’s gender seem to run deeper – all the way to the Senator’s campaign. Senator Clinton repeatedly cites the change that will be affected by electing a female president, but then dismisses the charge that she is playing the “gender card”. (By contrast, not once has Obama said that he should be elected because he would be the first Black president). Senator Clinton claims to be the candidate of feminists (indeed, Steinem herself basically questions the gender authenticity of young women for daring to choose a male candidate over Senator Clinton – going so far as to suggest that “women are the one group that grows more radical with age”) and yet Clinton expected to ride the wave of her husband’s accomplishments all the way to the White House. And in case we found out that she actually had very little to do with those accomplishments, she and her husband have carefully chosen to exclude White House documents pertaining to the First Lady’s role during the Clinton years from the public eye.

Ultimately, however, Steinem’s piece (intentionally or unintentionally) draws a line in the sand between people of colour and women, essentially disregarding the everyday racism faced by Black and Brown people, and claiming the Oppression Olympics gold medal for women. Further, by casting the debate as between Black men and White women (despite her imperfect creation of Achola Obama), Steinem renders the woman of colour invisible, reaffirms the binary Black-White paradigm of race, and demands we take a side in the epic battle between race and gender. Is it no wonder, then, that women of colour have long felt alienated by feminists like Steinem? Where do we fit when we’re being asked to choose between Obama and Clinton as a metaphor for race versus gender? And how are we supposed to react when an incorrect choice labels us as “less radical”?

Gloria Steinem wants us to able to say we’re supporting Senator Hillary Clinton because she’ll be a great president and because she’s a woman. But if we’re really ready to take “equal pride in breaking all the barriers”, then how can we be expected to make the call between voting for these candidates based even in part on their identity? Regardless of whom we decide on, by making the identity politics of our candidate a factor in our decision, we are implicitly establishing a “separate and unequal” relationship between race and gender barriers that only fuels the continued clash between race activists and feminists.

So, I’m supporting Senator Barack Obama because he’ll be a great president. And, not because he’s Black.