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.


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