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Gloria Steinem Debates Racism and Sexism in the '08 Election

An exchange between Gloria Steinem and progressive leader Sally Kohn about a recent NY Times op-ed on identity politics in the '08 campaign.
The following is an exchange between Gloria Steinem and Sally Kohn on Steinem's recent New York Times op-ed on race and gender in the 2008 election.

Sally Kohn offers a critique of a recent New York Times op-ed Gloria Steinem

Recently in The New York Times, Gloria Steinem argued that if Barack Obama was a woman, he wouldn't be elected. That's probably true. Ms. Steinem then concludes that "gender is probably the most restricting force in American life." That's definitely false. Or, rather, a false choice. The reality is that racism and sexism are both profound and pervasive throughout our society. Ranking different forms of oppression is a ridiculous waste of time. We should be working to eradicate all forms of oppression, not deciding which one takes precedence.

In other words, just because Senator Obama was (at the time of Ms. Steinem's op-ed) surging above Hillary Clinton doesn't mean that racism has taken a back seat to sexism in the American body politic. Voter preferences may actually have to do with perceived differences on the candidate's positions. Or they may have to do with how each candidate USES their identity: Senator Clinton highlighting her uniqueness as a woman in appealing to women voters, Senator Obama emphasizing how his experiences as an African American give him a more universal insight on unity and solidarity that applies across race. It's not to say one approach is right or wrong but merely different TAKES on their marginalized identities not merely different identities between these two candidates.

Nonetheless, it's probably true that if Barack Obama were bi-racial and a woman, he might not be where he is today. But Ms. Steinem neglected to note that if Hillary Clinton were an African-American woman, she probably wouldn't be either. It goes to show not that one form of oppression is more persistent than the other but that both run deep and strong in our country, as witnessed most powerfully where they intersect.

Strict gender roles and norms still pervade our society. Glass ceilings and double standards are all still too common. And racial profiling and lack of meaningful access to equal opportunity in education, jobs, lending and more still plagues African-American communities. These are real problems, and I hope that whomever we elect -- white or black, male or female -- they can use their own experience of privilege in life -- or lack thereof -- to breakdown the barriers of discrimination and create an America that truly values all of us. That deeply American ideal of community values -- that all people are inherently equal and interconnected -- is what we need to be reminded of, regardless of the messenger.

The roots of racism and sexism are the same -- the desire to maintain power and privilege for some at the expense of everyone else. Our only hope of addressing EITHER racism or sexism is to address them BOTH together. Rooting racism AND sexism from every facet of our social, economic and political institutions and practices to create a better America is far more worthwhile than debating which form of oppression is faring worse.

Gloria Steinem's New York Times article

Women Are Never Front-Runners

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."

Gloria Steinem's response to Sally Kohn

Sally Kohn disagrees with me -- but I agree with her.

When I wrote "probably the most restricting force," I meant that gender affected the most people, from the kitchen to the White House, across racial groups, not that it was the most serious in some hierarchy of suffering. On the contrary, I've always argued for the linking of forms of discrimination, not ranking.

Though I would have hoped there was enough evidence of this in the rest of the Op Ed, it was my error in seeing what I meant, not what others would see. This was compounded by the Times online use of the first half of the sentence as a pull-quote that characterized the column.

In all future uses of this essay, I will change the words to "a restricting force..." For space, I also cut a sentence from the last paragraph that I restore here: "It's time to take equal pride in breaking all the barriers. Just as it's possible to say, "I support him because he'll be great president and help us break down our racial 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."

Sally Kohn responds

As a hero of mine, I'm glad to hear that Gloria Steinem and I don't disagree. But I do worry that as Ms. Steinem suggests, the intent of the piece may have been one thing, but it conveyed something entirely different.

I realize that in words, Ms. Steinem said that she sees racism and sexism as linked, but the piece ends up conveying something opposite. Pointing out that black men got the right to vote before white women and suggesting that voters may favor Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton because the idea of an African American president is somehow more palatable than the idea of a female present along identity lines alone has the effect of suggesting that racism has taken a back seat to sexism in America. Yet from Jena, Louisiana, to Hollywood and everywhere in between, we know it's hard to deny the very real, persistent and painful realities of racism in America. Plus while Ms. Steinem argues that racism and sexism are linked and must be uprooted together, suggesting that one is more deeply embedded than the other as measured by candidate popularity effectively cancels out that point entirely.

Personally, I don't know who I'm voting for. But while I'd be proud to vote for Senator Obama because he's black or Senator Clinton because she's a woman, you can bet that if I chose Senator Obama over Senator Clinton it won't be because I'm sexist. I hope that's not the conclusion Ms. Steinem intended to draw.
Sally Kohn is the director of the Movement Vision Lab, where grassroots leaders share and debate new ideas for the future. Gloria Steinem is a co-founder of the Women’s Media Center.
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