Friday, January 11, 2008

Steinem, Just Shut Up

My bad.

Having just excoriated Jesse Jackson, Jr.,for dragging us deeper into a sexist/racist slime fest, I have to say that I should first have taken on Gloria Steinem’s op-ed piece, “Women are Never Front-Runners,” which came out first (January 8, New York Times).

Leading with a hypothetical candidate bio that presumably approximates Obama’s and involves both race and gender, Steinem wants to persuade us that “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.”

First off, I think it’s seriously irresponsible of Steinem, who knows better, to inject “Oppression Olympics” into the current charged atmosphere in the first place. On reflection, I see why her piece has triggered a lot of anger in the African American community, and may indeed have helped open the door a little wider to media spokesperson idiocies about the presumptive effects of sex and race on this election. Certainly it has raked open the wound that some white liberal feminists--not all, by any means--created in the Second Wave of feminism by implying that all women are equally affected by sex regardless of race, class, and culture. She surely should have been wiser than to go there.

Second, it’s inane for anybody to make that pronouncement. The assertion is immeasurable, it’s foolishly reductive, it solves nothing, and it goes nowhere good. Ipso facto, the only people who might know first-hand would be women of color, not white women, and among women of color, I really doubt that there'd be unanimity on the question across time and space, let alone across culture and context. Why? Because ethnicity, age, class, education, wealth, urbanity, and gradations of color and gender, not to mention context, are immense complicators, making Steinem’s simplistic binary equation meaningless and needlessly polarizing.

Third, that question just isn’t something any white person can speak authoritatively about. When we do, we really piss off a lot of people—not least, women of color, who feel utterly erased by the remark. They are “disappeared” in the conceptual chasm set up by the race/ gender equation. Besides, when a white person says race is trumped by gender, then his or her whiteness itself becomes a judge in the court of opinion, rendering the verdict a matter in which white and privilege obliterate race still yet again one more time. It’s not cool.

Fourth, in this case. Steinem is on really shaky ground. Women generally have held more powerful House and Senate seats in Washington than men of color. I just don’t know what “women are never front-runners” might mean in that political context. I do know that basing the argument on women’s suffrage is pretty dumb because voting isn’t the only criterion and because it’s a shallow analysis of the history of suffrage. As Anxious Black Woman points out:

I take issue with Steinem using, as her historical analogy, the 14th Amendment - which granted black men the right to vote long before white women did - to suggest that "race" trumps "gender" every time! Considering the way the women's suffrage movement was immediately divided over this amendment - and then encouraged white supremacist women to argue that, to ensure white supremacy, white men must support the right of white women to vote - we may want to complicate our analysis of race and gender in this presidential race.

Even if it had the inclination, today's MSM don't have time, knowledge, or skill to disinter, let alone take account of, all the grim, fluctuating, and sometimes contradictory realities of American history around dynamics of sex and race. Few columnists do, either. So it’s probably best not to try to compare them, as Steinem does here, because grotesque oversimplification is inevitable, and because nobody wins the oppression Olympics. Everybody just gets madder. I'm not saying to pretend they don't exist. I'm saying they can't be ranked.