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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Women Are Never Front- Runners

Gloria Steinem
NY Times OP-ED
January 8, 2008

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.

Notes on the picture above: 
Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, circa 1970
Photograph by Dan Wynn.
"For the four or five years surrounding the birth of Ms., I was traveling and speaking as a team with a black feminist partner: first Dorothy Pitman Hughes, a child-care pioneer, then lawyer Florynce Kennedy, and finally activist Margaret Sloan. By speaking together at hundreds of public meetings, we hoped to widen a public image of the women's movement created largely by its first homegrown media event, The Feminine Mystique.... Despite the many early reformist virtues of The Feminine Mystique, it had managed to appear at the height of the civil rights movement with almost no reference to black women or other women of color. It was most relevant to the problems of the white well-educated suburban homemakers who were standing by their kitchen sinks justifiably wondering if there weren't 'more to life than this.' As a result, white-middle-class movement had become the catch phrase of journalists describing feminism in the United States..., and divisions among women were still deep."
Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (1983), pp. 5-6


Martha said...

Of course I would like to see a first woman president. A first lady president just isn't the same.

Frair John said...

I have one small problem.
I don't like the junior Senator from NY. It's not about her gender as much as it is that I don't trust her, just as I found it hard to trust her husband. I don't like the Clintons, I haven't since "Don't ask, don't tell" institutionalized passive aggressive dishonor. I turned my back on him with DOMA and I wince with the "more of the same" clap trap one hears from her camp now. I resented the "anointed heir" attitude so many of Hilary Clinton supporters have taken.
What I really resent is that it is often implied, and now Steinem has openly said, that those of us who don't support Clinton do so out of a deep seated misogyny.
Dose no one notice the catch 22?

Janet Detter Margul said...

And still I'm encouraged just knowing that tonight, in the New Hampshire primary, is the race too close to call between a woman and a black man. And yes, it may make sense that the color barrier is the one easiest to break. Keep in our hearts and believe in our hearts the words of Susan B. Anthony: "Failure is impossible."

Suzer said...

Amen, Friar John! My distrust of Hillary comes not from her gender, but from her past actions. It's frustrating to now see folks throwing around misogyny as the reason people don't want to vote for her, when she's given ample reasons for many of us to shy away from her policies.

Christopher said...

friar john says what I think. To suggest that if we don't support Sen. Clinton, we're misogynist is a Catch 22 and makes support Sen. Clinton or not a rather coercive suggestion. This is the kind of pc identity politicking that turns me off, and I suspect it turns many X'ers and Y'ers off. I want to be known by the content of my character and my qualifications, decidely conservative notions,and not hired or sought only because I'm gay. Yes, there is sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism to address, but to suggest that is the only reason one might not support a candidate is unjust and unexamined.

The suggestion that simply because one is a woman, things will automatically be better and power will not be abused simply isn't true, and certainly has not been the case in my life. It was a liberal, Boomer, clergywoman who made my partner and my life a living hell for three years. Sen. Clinton's been known to snap profanities at staffers and state troopers, for example. We need to get past the romanticizing of women in power as the solution to all our ills. We are all sinners; all of us can abuse authority and power. I have known women in places of authority who do great things, but let's not pretend that simply because a woman is in power that all will always be well.

Most of all, like friar john, following "Don't ask, Don't tell, Don't Pursue" and DOMA and then Sen. Clinton's stony response to Melissa Etheridge in this regard, I simply do not trust her--she's likely to sell us down the river after the election if the past and her caution is any indication. It's kind of like talking about "crucified places to be".

Mary Sue said...

Why does this have to become a huge "My oppressed population is better than your oppressed population!" thing? As far as I'm concerned, Obama and Clinton are both upper class people who can afford things such as college degrees, apartments in Washington, DC, and very, very expensive political campaigns.

Meanwhile, I'm working two jobs because the well-paying one is temporary and the poorly-paying, physically punishing, and all around craptacular job actually gives me health insurance, a luxury I haven't had in six years. And even with two jobs, I've defaulted on my student loans. I'm watching my parents take care of my grandparents and worrying that in a very short while, I'll have to take care of my folks and I'm in nowhere near the stable financial place from which my folks support my grand'rents.

White, black, purple, male, female, alien-- I don't give a damn what my President looks like. I need someone who will finally stop tap-dancing and give me answers with meaning.

susankay said...

I don't get the not trusting Hillary Clinton bit. I've never been betrayed by her and I don't know that she inherits the sins of her husband. I have heard good liberals snarl that she is a politician -- well, duh. Not too many non-politicians run for president. And none get elected. The closest we have had in my lifetime was Jimmy Carter, probably the nicest President but one who accomplished almost nothing as President and set us up for eight years of Ronnie. I support Hillary because I think she is probably the smartest person running and because she IS politically savy. Great article, by the way.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You don't have to like her, personally. You just have to see her potential for leadership, which is great - strike that - ENORMOUS.

Personally, I'd love to see Obama win, but I'm thinking that's just not going to be possible.

What I'd really love is, at some point in this electoral process, for Hillary and Obama to team up and we'd have the White House locked up for the next 16 years.