Gloria Steinem has hit the New York Times’ most e-mailed list with a provocative piece titled “Women Are Never Front-Runners,” comparing America’s reaction to Hillary Clinton with its reception of Barack Obama.
Her main point? Obama would never make it as a woman. Starting off with the biography of a fictional female version of Obama (i.e., lawyer, mother of two, inspirational voice for national unity), she asks, “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?”
Steinem concludes that no, she couldn’t. “Indeed, neither she nor Hillary Clinton could have used Mr. Obama’s public style — or Bill Clinton’s either,” Steinem writes, “without being considered too emotional by Washington pundits.”
I’ve got to say, I think Steinem’s right. It is difficult, if not impossible, for me to imagine wide-eyed idealistic crowds swooning over Obama’s speeches if he were a woman. He’d be thought of as impractical and inexperienced, and his rhetoric of hope would be criticized — much more than it has been so far — for lacking suggestions for concrete action. That’s not a criticism of Obama, however. It’s a criticism of how America responds differently to men and women. These are two separate things.
But unfortunately, Steinem conflates the two — and is therefore likely to fall prey to the same double standard that she’s writing about. As a famous feminist, she knows all too well that she can be easily dismissed by people who think feminists are nothing more than whiny, man-hating extremists. So when she says that “gender is probably the most restricting force in American life,” rattles off a list of ways in which women have it harder than black people (they got the vote later, they take care of the kids, there’s no way to be a woman in power without being considered a “you-know-what”) — and then claims that she’s “not advocating a competition for who has it toughest,” you have to wonder what she was thinking.
The framing of the Op-Ed as, well, a competition for who has it toughest also conflicts with her assertion that “the caste systems of sex and race are interdependent and can only be uprooted together.” If it’s true — as I believe it is — that we react differently to women than to men, then it’s also true, unfortunately, that female editorialists have to be especially careful about tone, lest they weaken their own argument. Steinem knows that there are many situations where feminists can’t come off as feminists if they want their points to stick, which makes me surprised that she chose to craft her piece this way — and worried that the phrasing of her piece will become the topic of discussion, rather than her actual message.