Thursday, January 10, 2008

Is Steinem Wrong?

I grew up with Ms. Magazine and often find myself in agreement with Gloria Steinem, the Ms. Co-Founder pictured below left. That is perhaps what makes her op-ed in Tuesday's NYT so disappointing.
In it, Steinem argues that "gender is probably the most restricting force in American life." To make her point, she contrasts the experience of being female with that of being black and suggests that the former constitutes a more formidable obstacle to success in American politics than the latter. She suggests that the historical stereotyping of “black men as more ‘masculine’” works to their advantage in contemporary politics. How quickly Steinem forgets the scores of black men lynched as a response to the racist conception of black men as a hyper-masculinized threat to white women’s sexuality.
Although Steinem asserts that she is not “advocating a competition for who has it toughest,” her op-ed piece does exactly that. Steinem acknowledges that “the caste systems of sex and race are interdependent and can only be uprooted together.” Her piece, however, undermines this important insight and attempts to drive a wedge between the feminist and anti-racist movements, marginalizing women of color in the process.
Perhaps Steinem should take a cue from the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), a committee that has, in recent years, embraced an intersectional understanding of race and gender discrimination. In its General Recommendation 25, the CERD Committee explores the ways in which gender and race discrimination are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. This approach reflects the “third wave” of feminism (described here by Amy Schriefer), and has greater potential to combat both racism and sexism than Steinem’s more divisive approach. (photo credit)


Diane Marie Amann said...

Dear Johanna,

Thanks for this important critique.
I'm afraid that this election campaign has not always brought out the best in feminists -- at least not those of the 2d wave. In addition to the op-ed you so rightly characterize as "disappointing," there was another, a few days earlier, also in the New York Times.
That op-ed, entitled "It Takes a Family (to Break a Glass Ceiling)," is available at It was written by Kerry Howley, senior editor of Reason, a periodical described on its website as a "libertarian monthly." (
Howley put forth something of a historical determinist argument -- that electing women whose claim to the public sphere is based on marriage to a famous man is an inevitable, even necessary part of some natural progression for women in politics. Thus she concluded that "[t]he great feminist promise" of the current campaign "amounts to this: If we elect a political wife now, perhaps we won’t have to later."
For those of us who, as you write, grew up with Ms. magazine, who've seen women on the ballot and voted for them routinely since we first became old enough to vote, it is stunning to read this argument being made, being published in a journal like the N.Y. Times, in the year 2008.

Diane Marie Amann said...

See too our colleague Rosa Brooks' LA Times column for Friday, Jan. 11, entitled "Sex, race and Gen Y voters," available at,0,7144626.column?coll=la-opinion-columnists. Her concluding paragraph:

"For younger voters, "Do you think a woman or a black man could be a good president?" is the wrong question. As women and men increasingly work side by side and share power, as the U.S. becomes a more complex, multiracial and multiethnic nation, younger voters may increasingly be asking themselves a very different question: Can a middle-aged white guy possibly be qualified to lead us into the future?"