My Old Fears

Gloria Steinem wrote an interesting New York Times op-ed piece today. It rings true to me, sadly.

In an earlier post, I lamented that some are giving too much credence to old fears about race and sex in politics. But while I hold to my conclusion that our fears about the (real or imagined) prejudices of others shouldn’t intimidate us into choosing the most “electable” person, I do admit that an abiding sense of dejection takes me over now and again when the entrenched nature of some of those kinds of prejudices resurface.

I have to say, I have always thought that the sex barrier is in some ways much tougher to negotiate. Not suggesting that the legacy of sexism has been as harrowing as the legacy of slavery or Jim Crow, but it certainly has been more resistant. Possibly because it has been more diffuse, sexism is also much harder to shake than racism. Americans have historically not found gender inequality as morally problematic as race inequality.

In the 19th Century, the feminist movement put its agenda on hold to go all out in supporting the abolition movement. At the end of that road, we had a constitutional amendment that specifically prohibited race-based voting discrimination against “male” citizens. Women would have to wait another generation.

In more recent history, remember back in the fall when a McCain supporter asked him “how do we beat the bitch” and he — after laughing it off and before saying something generic about respecting Senator Clinton — actually said “that’s an excellent question”? Can you imagine if the supporter had said how do we beat the “nigger” referring to a black candidate? McCain would have expressed outrage and everyone in the media would be all over it.

In fact, remembering back to Don Imus — if a man in his position had called some athletes “scruffy little sluts” I doubt the national outcry would be as loud or last as long, particularly if their race had been the same as his. People seemed to care that these young women were targets of a racial slur and I’m glad they cared, but if the slur had been purely sexual, and coming from a man who shared their race, I think most people would shrug it off. And women who insisted on calling attention to it would be considered tiresome and polarizing.

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