Sally Kohn and Gloria
Posted on January 11, 2008, Printed on January 11, 2008
The following is an exchange between Gloria and
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 the 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
Personally, I don't know who I'm voting. 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't 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
Project of the Center for Community Change, which is
interviewing hundreds of activists across the country to
determine the progressive vision for the future of the
United States. Gloria Steinem is a co-founder of the Women’s
© 2008 Independent Media
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