Racism vs. Sexism in 2008 Presidential Politics

It’s been 25 years since Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith published their groundbreaking But Some of Us are Brave, and yet it looks like the women are (still) all white and all the blacks are (still) men. Gloria Steinem wrote an Op-Ed that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times in which she argues that “the sex barrier” is “not taken as seriously as the racial one.” Then ponders this in the following passage:

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.

…. 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.”

Curious, what do you think? Is Steinem correct here?

Of course, the underlying problem in Steinem’s logic here is the false-dichotomy of “racism” versus “sexism” which precludes thinking about the complicated ways these are interwoven, not just in the lives of women of color but in all our lives. The way the presidential politics are playing out in the media around a black (male) candidate and a white (woman) candidate fits rather seamlessly within the flawed logic that Hull, Bell-Scott and Smith pointed out years ago.


  1. The caste systems of sex and race are interdependent I’m not sure Steinem is offering the false dichotomy you suggest.

    Though it’s always good to be reminded of the temptation to do that, thanks!

  2. Terence90

    I feel that Steinem’s comments were not correct. In fact, she is facilitating a covert racists division that has historically been present when discussing race and gender. For example, during the suffrage movement, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady, advocated along side Frederick Douglas for the voting rights for both White women and Black men during the 1860s. But, once the fourteenth amendment was enacted, White women began to turn on Black males, feeling the legislation was an act of transgression as Black men were granted the right before White women. As one suffragist declared, “’What an insult to the women who have labored thirty years for emancipation of the slave now, when he is their political equal, to propose to lift him over their heads” (as cited in Catt, 1923, p. 62-63). The anger felt by White women in the movement grew and employed a White supremacist overtone that was not apparently present before, as is apparent in the writings of Anthony and Stanton and the decision to disconnect the suffrage movement from Blacks and their agenda. This continued throughout the suffrage movement and persisted even into the early twentieth century. Finnegan (1999) states that the enfranchised White women’s agenda was centered on gaining political power by ignoring the Black political plight while at the same time defending a White supremacist ideology that preserved their White dominance and privilege over Blacks. Clearly, this was facilitated by the fact that as members of the dominant culture, at least with respect to race, they retain some power to set the dominant ideology (Watkins, 2001).

  3. Jessie Author

    Excellent comment, Terrence ~ thanks for that. Ignoblus, clearly we disagree. While Steinem certainly sees connections between race and gender, the way she framed her piece is clearly rooted in this false choise between a notion of gender that’s white, and a notion of blackness that is male. This split between “choosing gender” or “choosing race” is getting played out all over the mainstream news and in the landscape of the talking-head punditry. Last night, for example, on MSNBC they had DeeDee Myers (a white woman and Clinton-supporter, making the case for ‘gender’) up against Michael Eric Dyson (critical race scholar, a black man, making the case for ‘race’). There are so few opportunities in this country to address either gender or race on anything like a national level, it’s just kind of heartbreaking to see it play out in this intellectually-limited way that, to my mind at least, was called into question years ago.

  4. Jessie, I certainly see what it is in Steinem’s piece you objected to, and why. What I wasn’t certain of was how to balance that with what seems to be her central point, that we shouldn’t make this a competition. But I do see that a lot of people are taking the piece the same way you have, and I take that as important.

    (Although I haven’t been watching tv lately – it’s not by choice, and I’m not proud of it – I’m not the least bit surprised that the discussions have been shallow. They’re typically pretty shallow regardless of the topic.)

  5. Jessie Author

    There’s a terrific exploration of the Steinem Op-Ed, including an interview with her, over at Alternet.org (http://www.alternet.org/reproductivejustice/73545/).
    At the very end of that long but worth-reading piece, Sally Kohn speaks for me when she says:
    “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. “

Leave a Reply