Gloria Steinem takes the high road

The feminist icon dodges the "dumb and destructive" Obama vs. Clinton debate.

Published February 8, 2007 4:27PM (EST)

Now that we've got a rainbow coalition of Democratic candidates, the debate about whether a woman or a black man can win the nation's highest office has pushed political horse race chatter to a new low. The running has barely begun, yet the media has already exhausted itself talking about the identity-politics equivalent of back musculature and breeding.

From the beginning there have been plenty of observers to name the sex vs. race debate for what it is: a huge distraction from the substance of the campaign. But none has struck so plaintive a chord as Gloria Steinem's Op-Ed in Wednesday's New York Times. Calling it a "dumb and destructive question," Steinem argues that most Americans are smart enough to know better than choose candidates based on skin color or genital configuration. She invokes Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court hearings and Elizabeth Dole's presidential run as instances of voters seeing past shared identity and recognizing divergent interests.

Fair enough. But the wholesale rejection of conservatives like Thomas or Dole represents a far simpler choice than the tangle of decisions Democratic voters face regarding Obama or Clinton. As Steinem notes, already polls show that people aren't voting with their I.D. cards: "Polls show that about 60 percent of African-American Democrats support Hillary Clinton, while only about 20 percent support Barack Obama." At first it seems that she's using this statistic to show that the race-gender debate is irrelevant in the eyes of the voters, but sadly it's quite the opposite. Citing a "disease of doubt," Steinem points to statistics (81 percent of black voters believe a white man will get the Democratic nomination, while only 58 percent of white voters do -- plus more women than men tell pollsters that Clinton can't win) that suggest the race-gender debate may influence voters in the worst possible way -- steering them clear of their true choices in favor of those they believe can win.

In the end, Steinem implores Democrats to jettison the question altogether and take a page from the historical alliances between women and African-Americans: "rediscovering Gunnar Myrdal's verdict of the 1940s that 'the parallel between women and Negroes is the deepest truth of American life, for together they form the unpaid or underpaid labor on which America runs.'" When asked who she's supporting -- Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama -- Steinem just says "yes."

This embrace-now, critique-later approach to the campaign is an interesting one, since not so long ago Jane Fonda -- who founded the Women's Media Center and GreenStone Media with Steinem -- offered a less politic appraisal of Clinton's potential presidency: "Well," Fonda said, "her position on the war disappoints me a lot, and that's a biggie." Fonda went on to point out that in many cases she would have preferred a "man of conscience, a feminist man" to some of the female presidents and prime ministers the world has seen. Last month leading women's rights advocate Kate Michelman announced she was working for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, citing similar reasoning.

Whatever one thinks about Clinton herself, how can one not wince at the idea of the country's most prominent feminists turning on the country's first viable female presidential candidate only to find themselves eating their words if she wins the primary? Steinem's "just say yes" answer offers those feminists who don't want to slam Clinton, but aren't necessarily for her, the best of all possible strategies. The only problem, of course, is that politics isn't a group sport. Once the running begins, and the track gets dirty, it will be harder and harder to stand on the sidelines cheering the team.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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