A Response to Gloria Steinem
January 9, 2008
In your op-ed, " Women Are Never Front-Runners," you claim that a woman with Barack Obama's record, experience, and biography would not be considered a viable candidate for the presidency of the United States, and you call for a feminist movement in support of Hillary Clinton. You declare, "What worries me is that some women, perhaps especially younger ones, hope to deny or escape the sexual caste system." As one of the countless younger women inspired by and active in Obama's movement for change, I feel compelled to respond.
Let me begin with an expression of my gratitude. Thanks to the tireless efforts of your feminist generation, I am fortunate to have lived a life, thus far, almost entirely free of the economic, legal, and social barriers that would have prevented me from attaining the rights, benefits, or opportunities afforded my male counterparts. I received an outstanding K-12 public school education alongside male classmates, and the female:male ratio of Brown University, which I now attend, is 53:47. I have never known a time before Title IX, and my mother watched with pride over my four high school years playing Varsity Womens' Volleyball. I have applied for jobs and internships alongside competitive male applicants and discounted gender as a factor in my ability to attain such positions. I have been blessed by the fight and courage of those of you who came before me. Still, I realize that our fight, as women, is far from over.
For this reason, I feel compelled to use responsibly the rights that I have. This year marks my first year eligible as a voter in a presidential election. One might assume that I am presented with a difficult task: Do I-a hyper-political young feminist-vote for a woman under the assumption that Hillary (back) in the White House brings all women to the White House? Or do I-a socially-conscious activist dedicated to the pursuit of racial equality-vote for the first black man considered a front-runner in a presidential primary?
You see, it's really not that simple, and I resent, Ms. Steinem, the manner in which you pit race against gender in your op-ed. To your credit, you aim to avoid this juxtaposition, writing, "The caste systems of sex and race are interdependent and can only be uprooted together." But the very premise of your piece ("Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life") contradicts this cursory warning. Using Obama's Iowa victory as evidence, you say, "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."
But we both know that black Americans lacked any real political power until the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts of 1964. We both know that, even after this legislation, the political establishment subdues the black vote through gerrymandering, voter ID laws, felony disenfranchisement, and countless other measures aimed at silencing African-Americans. And we both know that race and gender are not independent of one another but are, rather, entirely interdependent. We know that Hillary might not have gotten to Wellesley or Yale Law or the White House had she been black. We know that the Civil Rights Movement led to serious conflicts over the role of women in its positions of power and respect, and that feminist movements have always led to questions of which women deserve which rights.
Perhaps it is true that a female version of Obama would be unable to rise to his current position. But this is not a defense of Hillary Clinton, whose early life sounds a lot like mine: suburban white girl leaves the nest and becomes socially-conscious at liberal arts college. What is most striking about Hillary's rise is not the hardship she has faced as a woman seeking power; what is striking about Hillary is what she has done with the power she has accrued. She has become the candidate of the machine. She represents an old, established, well-funded politics. During her Iowa concession speech, Hillary stood with Wesley Clark and Madeleine Albright over her right shoulder, and Bill Clinton over her left...an image worth one thousand words. Ultimately, your defense of Hillary Clinton comes, not with your explanation of sexual caste, but with your applause of Hillary's experience and resume.
Barack Obama is a candidate of a different mold. He is international, interracial, and inter-party. He has captivated the minds and hearts of a cross-section of Democrats, Independents, Republicans, men, women, blacks, and whites with his call for change and grassroots politics. In my lifetime, I will have lived under 1 year of Reagan, 8 years of Clinton, and 12 years of Bush before our next president takes office. Hopefully, you understand my desperation for a candidate of a different ideological and experiential breed. Hopefully you understand that women of my generation who support Barack Obama do not do so because we take sexism lightly; we do so because Hillary neglects to fight a sexist establishment. Hillary, like Queen Elizabeth, operates under the motto "If you can't fight 'em, join 'em." We support Obama because we are women, but we are also members of a generation hungry for hope and hungry for action.
This is why I have been paying my own expenses to travel from Rhode Island to New Hampshire since September to talk to voters about Obama's candidacy. This is why I lead weekly meetings of some sixty Brown students dedicated to the Obama campaign. This is why I drove to New Hampshire on January 3rd and worked the streets and the phones nonstop until the results came in last night. This is why I'm not done yet, and why I look forward to canvassing and calling the voters of nearby February 5 states Massachusetts and Connecticut. This is why I'm ready for change. I am not, as you suggest, hoping to "deny or escape the sexual caste system." I am fighting to dismantle caste and inequality, which is why I am fighting for Barack Obama, not Hillary Clinton.
I began with an expression of gratitude for all that you have done and continue to do for the feminist cause, and I will finish with a request. Please do not pretend to speak out on behalf of my generation of women. Please do not imply that my support for Senator Obama is suggestive of my denial of the sexual caste system. Please do not forget that my generation is a new generation: we realize that to be a feminist does not simply mean to have a right to do something, it means to use that right responsibly.
Brown University, Class of 2009
Brown Students for Barack Obama GOTV Coordinator