Despite the fact that the news cycle has moved on to other stories, I remain fixated on the comments Geraldine Ferraro made recently.
She claimed, “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position.” She continued on, saying “And if he was a woman he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is.” Gloria Steinem made a similar argument in a New York Times editorial earlier this year (“Women are never Front Runners”).
The implication here—bubbling beneath the surface for a while now—is that white women encounter more obstacles than black men do. That is objectively false, particularly when viewed through the lens of this election season. While there is only one black man in the Senate, there are 16 white female Senators. There are eight white female governors, and only two black males ones—one of whom came to power as a result of the Spitzer scandal.
Steinem rested her case that “gender is probably the most restricting force in American life,” partly on the idea that black men got the vote a full half century before white women. Well yes, technically. But she might have noted that it was not until the voting rights act in 1965 that blacks could be assured of having access to the ballot box. So blacks—men and women—could only truly vote more than 40 years after white women got the right. I wonder if she can produce any white women beaten, lynched, or harassed by grandfather clauses and poll tests for trying to exercise that right. Steinem’s logic here was based either on a profound misunderstanding of American history, or historical revisionism. I pray it is the former.
It is far from clear that Obama’s race has given him any advantage over Hillary Clinton as Ferraro implies. In a good number of debates, Clinton has dutifully reminded us that a woman President would represent a huge change. If Obama did the same, he would be excoriated for “pulling the race card,” and his campaign staff would worry sick about all the white votes he was losing. The double standard is a result of sheer numbers. Identity politics are acceptable when close to 60% of Democratic primary voters are women.
And while Obama’s race has given him an edge with black voters, Clinton’s gender has given her a more powerful one with women for the simple reason that there are far more votes to be had in that demographic. Arguably, race has actually been a bigger hindrance for Obama, than gender has for Clinton. In the Ohio Primary, 27% of voters admitted that race influenced their decision; 60% of them chose Clinton.
Watching old line feminists like Ferraro bemoan the rise of Obama, one could be forgiven for concluding that part of the reason they’re so exasperated is that of all things, a black man is standing in the way of the first woman to make a serious run. Such an interpretation harkens back to the unfortunate racist tinge present in the certain strains of the early feminist movement. During the debates over the fourteenth and fifteenth amendment, the National Women Suffrage association (NWSA) explicitly asserted white women's superiority over black men as potential voters.
In 1912, WEB DuBois criticized Anna Shaw, President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association for keeping a resolution condemning the disenfranchisement of blacks from reaching the whole convention.
This was a stark contrast with the work the Women’s National Loyal League did to collect signatures for a petition urging the abolition of slavery. Some of the most tireless crusaders against modern-day racism have also been women. And if the feminist movement was tainted by racism, the leaders of the civil rights movement all too often treated black women as second class citizens.
The real problem I have with the sexism vs. racism debate raging today though, is that it’s useless. White women face unacceptable pay disparities in the workplace, as do black men. There are negative societal stereotypes about both. The history of discrimination against both groups is a stain on America’s greatness.
At this momentous moment in history, we must not get sidetracked in a vitriolic argument over who has it worse. I do not fault women—especially older ones who encountered the most blatant discrimination—who want to see Hillary Clinton break that glass ceiling any more than I fault blacks for wanting desperately to see a black President. As Steinem rightly notes in her piece, “The caste systems of sex and race are interdependent and can only be uprooted together.”