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Race and Gender in the 2008 Presidential Primaries

After the Iowa caucus, Gloria Steinem, a longtime activist for women’s rights, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times. Soon her piece was on the Times’ most emailed list provoking feelings of both solidarity and outrage. In it, she contrasts the country’s reception of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Steinem begins by writing that a woman with the exact same background as Obama would not be considered a viable candidate in the nation’s eyes because she believes that in a hierarchy of oppressions, gender discrimination tops racism. She references the fact that in the movement for suffrage, African-American men won the right to vote 50 years before women. Steinem further suggests that women continue to struggle to match gains made by black men in the corporate world and the military. She goes on to say that race and gender should not be placed in opposition and that women and African-Americans need to work together to end oppression.

Critics have accused her of doing exactly what she seems to warn against: pitting gender against race. They point out that her essay reads as a divisive list of ways in which women have it tougher than African-American men which she in turn uses to argue that Clinton has it harder than Obama in the race to become the Democratic Party nominee for President. Some interpret her message as one that criticizes Obama for transcending race barriers and blames him for the challenges of sexism Clinton struggles against. Others accuse Steinem of trying to rally women’s votes for Clinton by implying that true feminists choose gender over race.

What is the relevance of race and gender in the 2008 Presidential primaries? What are the challenges that Clinton faces because she is a woman and Obama encounters because of his race? If Clinton wins the nomination is it an indication that the country is too racist to elect an African-American President? If Obama wins, does this mean that we are too sexist to support a woman as President? Is it problematic to compare racism and sexism? What does it look like to “uproot” both systems together? How do the intersections of race and gender help inform our understanding of oppression and the kind of politics we practice?

Suggested Readings:

Women Are Never Front-Runners

Race and Gender in Presidential Politics: A Debate Between Gloria Steinem and Melissa Harris-Lacewell

Gloria Steinem Debates Racism and Sexism in the ’08 Election

Sexism a bigger obstacle than racism?

NYT readers’ comments – Read a Few of the Interesting Comments by NYT Readers

For more informaiton, please contact Kristin Millikan at 312.422.5580.