Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Dear Gloria Steinem: Ain't I a woman too?

From time to time, I am challenged by other black women for calling myself a feminist. Some of them believe that while all women suffer from sexism, white women who make up the feminist mainstream do not understand the extra burden of race faced by women of color. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem's Jan. 8 Op-ed in The New York Times just made it even harder for me to defend myself. In it, she declares that sexism trumps racism and that true "radical" feminists are casting their votes for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. Not only does Steinem show a remarkable ignorance and arrogance regarding the issue of race in America, but she seeks to make women's choices more narrow than those of the rest of the electorate.

Steinem begins her opinion piece by going for a gold medal in the oppression Olympics. "Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life," she writes.

Really? Before she decided that sexism beats racism, I wonder if Steinem asked someone who was both a woman and a racial minority. If she had, she may have come to a different conclusion. Has Steinem not read "Colonize This!" or any of the other fine writings by feminists of color?

I do not worry when going for a job interview that my gender will hinder me. I do worry about my race. I have experienced the disappointed look and rushed interview that comes when a potential employer, fooled by a nondescript phone voice, is surprised to encounter a black woman instead of a white one. I don't worry about wearing skirts and dresses and other gender-specific clothing in public. I do worry about the reaction to my unprocessed black hair, deemed ugly and unacceptable by the mainstream. In my years working in several major public relations agencies, I reported almost exclusively to white women and was nearly always the only black person in a professional position. Black women, in some cases even ones with post-graduate degrees, remained in administrative support roles. I DO face unique challenges as a woman, but my race compounds those challenges. Steinem appears to not be aware of her own inherent privilege.

I could go on about how women of color, are marginalized in our society, but Steinem provides a good example herself. Her op-ed piece reads as if the universal "women" she is writing to, includes only white women. In her view, a feminist's choice is between voting for one of her own, i.e. a woman candidate (Clinton), or voting for a man. What of those of us with more than one loyalty? Steinem separates the race issue from the gender issue as if there are not some of us affected by society's views of both. Ain't I a woman, too?

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).

I assume that at 18, Gloria Steinem cast her first presidential vote in the 1952 election. Certainly society did not prevent her from doing so. My paternal grandfather was a 53-year-old black man living in Mississippi that year. He was not afforded that freedom. Do we really want to go here? Apparently not. Later in her article, Steinem says:

I'm not advocating a competition for who has it toughest.

Good. Let's agree that trying to parse whether sexism beats racism is an empty, pointless exercise, and offensive to boot. Let's just say that women and ethnic minorities have both overcome considerable challenges and continue to fight for equality in this country and abroad. Let's acknowledge that both groups were once bound by the chains of oppression and forbidden from exercising one of the most fundamental American rights--the right to vote.

This is the other thing that dismays me about Steinem's article. She seeks to replace the chains of sexism with the shackles of tribal loyalty, which, I should point out, is one of the things that historically has kept women and minorities from having a seat at the political table.

Generations of men and women fought and died for my right to weigh the issues of the day, walk into a voting booth and cast my ballot for the person of my choosing. But Steinem wants me to give up that right and instead walk in lock step with second-wave feminists and cast my vote for symbolism's sake. Apparently as a woman, my choices should be narrower than those of other Americans. The presence of a woman on the Democratic primary ballot means my vote is preordained.

This kind of thinking is as ludicrous as that of many black people who say I MUST vote for Barack Obama without critically reviewing the policies of all candidates.

We have to be able to say: "I'm supporting her because she'll be a great president and because she's a woman."

No. I need to be able to say that I am supporting a candidate that will get us out of Iraq swiftly, who will repair America's broken reputation abroad, who will stand up to the corporatocracy, who will protect my right to govern my own body, who will make sure that every American child gets the health care she needs, who will strengthen laws barring discrimination based on race, gender or sexuality, who will ease the burdens of the middle class and the poor, who will improve our education system, who will mend the "red" vs. "blue" divide...Gender (and race) has nothing to do with it.

UPDATE: Read Gary Kamiya's dissection of the race vs. gender debate on Salon.


Latoya Peterson said...

I'll put the fist up for that one. Great post Tami!

SheCodes said...

I am positively STANDING UP and applauding. Good for you!

You should submit this for review in other publications.

Mes Deux Cents said...

Hi Tami,

The cynic in me says this piece by Steinem was a coordinated effort between the Clintons and her. I think Hillary's crying moment and this piece were simply their (The Clintons) strategy to get women in New Hampshire to vote and to vote for Hillary.

And it apparently worked since it seems that it was the women’s vote that put Hill over the top.

I hope that Steinem is not so obtuse as to really believe that gender trumps race.

I enjoyed your post, as always.

tasha212 said...

I always enjoy ur posts Tami. Since reading bell hook's Black Women and Feminism during my senior year in high school, I have been suspicious of these white feminists who call themselves "sisters" of black women. Because a "sister" wouldn't ask u to deny half of urself. She also wouldn't be so clueless about the issues that u have to deal with. Thank u for posting that. Gives me alot to think about.

Maria Niles said...


I'm here from BlogHer. Brava, this is brilliant.

Thank you!

Tami said...

Thanks, everyone. That op-ed just made me so angry and frustrated that I couldn't rest without saying something.


DMB said...

Great post, Tami. I wholeheartedly agree. You did your thing on this one.

bradski said...


I just read your comment on Feministing and totally agree with you. (Yeah, I'm a guy and a feminist ally!)

Given the choice between voting for Clarence Thomas and Hillary Clinton for higher office, I'd choose Clinton. Why does that matter? Well, duh, Clarence Thomas is a conservative, selfish creep who doesn't care about African- Americans or anyone who isn't wealthy. So, advantage Clinton because I think she would be a better president for my beliefs.

I'm African-American and I support John Edwards because his positions align more closely with my beliefs about the need for PROGRESSIVE change. Edwards also has reached out to African-American voters.
Edwards is a white, male heterosexual. Should I ignore him because of his race or gender even though I think he could do a great job?

I point this out because I don't want anyone telling me that I have to vote for someone because of their race or gender if that person's positions don't align with my beliefs.

I like Barack Obama VERY MUCH (he's a "black" man like me) but I like John Edwards more. Would I like to see a president who happens to be African-American? You betcha! I love seeing Obama doing well in the polls. I'd love to see him as president.

However, Obama's positions are close to my beliefs but don't match as closely as Edwards' I just like Edwards' sincere fight against the corporate machine and fight for the middle and working class. I think he sincerely wants to do well for all Americans.

Now for Steinem to pit racism vs. sexism is clearly disingenuous. Black men may have won the right to vote before white women, but that right was stripped away by Jim Crow just as quickly.

Look, I abhor the sexist crap that has been slimed by people like Chris Matthews on Hillary Clinton.
However, I also believe that there is something SERIOUSLY wrong with two families controlling the Whitehouse for almost 30 years, which could happen if Clinton wins.

bradski said...

BTW, I did Hillary Clinton was sincere when she cried. I think there is nothing wrong with someone becoming "emotional" about their passion to do right for their country.

A lot of the criticism from the media over her crying was sexist.

Back to Steinem, I think one of the hardest things for African-Americans is that we are constantly being told to fight amongst ourselves over bullshit:
gender, classism, sexuality, colorism, etc.

Steinem world-view doesn't allow her to see beyond her world of privilege that would be perfectly at home on the very white suburban street of Wisteria Lane where several wealthy white women lead their lives (next to a stereotyped example of the over-sexed white Latina and her thieving, hot-tempered Latino husband). A place where the only African-American family lived for 6 months and consisted of a twisted mother who's seemingly respectable clean cut son was a sexually aggressive murder who was willing to blame his mentally handicapped (big, brutish) brother for the death of his ex-girlfriend.

Yes, Wisteria Lane, a perfect place for the perfectly clueless Gloria Steinem to settle down and join the crowd of the privileged set.

Professor Kim said...

Hi Tami,
I also appreciated your post. I'd like to make one small factual point: 18-year-olds didn't get the vote until 1972. Steinem could not have voted before 21. But your larger point is absolutely right: at the point when Steinem could vote, millions of black men and women could not. Further, after the split between the abolitionists and suffragist during Reconstruction, feminist leaders such as Alice Paul used racism to appeal to white male politicians. The pitch was that giving the vote to white women would counteract the votes of blacks and immigrants.

If you haven't seen it, please check out Maria Niles' Letter to My White Sisters and the ensuing discussions. As a friend of mine said, this really does echo the letters exchanged between Audre Lorde and Mary Daly. Steinem knows all of this.

Also, Michel Martin interviewed Steinem today to get further clarity on her thinking. Steinem said she wasn't trying to say sexism was worse than racism; she was just trying to call attention to sexism.

Jennifer said...

You know I already think this post is brilliant because I wrote about it and linked to it from my own blog, so this is just to say THANK YOU!

It's so nice to know that there are smart people calling people out on their b.s. SO NECESSARY--and it's nice to feel like there is this community of people out there who share similar opinions and thoughts.

Tami said...


I want to tell you how much I enjoy your comments on my blog. You always seem to say what I am thinking...but better.

I feel exactly the way you do about Clinton, Obama and Edwards (who is my chosen candidate, though I fear the end of the line is coming.).

Professor Kim,

Welcome. Damn! The journalist is me said to confirm that 18 years olds could vote in 1952, but did I do it? I do agree that it matters not. The point is that her claim about black men and voting was disingenuous.

Thank you for the links. I will check them out.


Thanks for the always.

Tami said...

Professor Kim,

I listened to Steinem's interview on NPR and I have to say that I am now more angry than before. She now says that it is ridiculous to rank sexism vs. racism.

But, Gloria, you DID rank it. You wrote, and I quote: "Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life." MOST--using that word is RANKING. You wrote that black men were able to vote before white women to illustrate that black men are better off than white women. YOU WROTE THAT!

Rather than apologizing, Gloria Steinem is doing what priviledged people often do...interestingly, she is doing what men in power often do to women...pretend that the oppressed person is crazy, too sensitive, unhinged. Clarence to Anita: "I never sexually harassed you. You're crazy." Isaiah to Anuche: I never called you a bitch. You're crazy." Gloria Steinem to feminists of color: "I never said sexism was more important that racism. You're crazy."

That's it...bump the feminist label. I'm officially a womanist.

You know, I think I will post this on the blog.

bradski said...


Thanks for your kind words. I'll have to try to write when I'm less tired so that I won't drop words or type "who's" when I mean "whose."

Great blog!

Anonymous said...

Condi Rice is the best bet for President. She haven't declared and soon she a fade back into the common fold; but 2012 is round the corner.

It don't take a WOMANIST (the world needs nary 'nother "ist") to know that women, from the Kwanes of Englund, to, Golda Maier, to Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, to Benazir Bhutto can govern.

Yes, you a woman too. Steinem ought to be ashame (but she gots no shame) saying white womanism is not racism. It is. Pure D.

Hold her feets to the fire of integrity, Tam but don't warm her too much. She might be round that much longer. I'm down for Barack even if he don't wear a dress.

fudgelady said...


Gloria Steinem is denying something I have always seen as central to feminism -- women having the right to make decisions about our lives, our careers -- and our vote. My '08 vote, like yours, goes to John Edwards.

My mother, also a feminist, told me recently about getting a request from someplace to support women running for office. Reasonably enough, she said it depends on WHICH women!

Thanks for a powerful post, Tami! I look forward to reading more of your blog!


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