January
8th 2008
“Iron My Shirt”

Posted under: Gender, nepotism, unhappy endings, women's history

Gloria Steinem’s op-ed in the New York Times couldn’t be timelier.  It appears the day after Senator Clinton’s emotionally honest moment in New Hampshire, when she changed in one moment from a frosty, Tracey Flick-like know-it-all bee-yatch to being an embarassingly menstrous wreck, at least in the eyes of the press corps.  Steinem argues persuasively that a woman with Barack Obama’s resume would never have been taken seriously as a presidential candidate, let alone a front runner.  On the day after Senator Clinton was taunted by heckers carrying a sign and screaming, “Iron My Shirt,” Steinem asks, “so why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one?”

However, I have to question Steinem’s version of American history, in which “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 (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter).”  This is factually correct, but shorn of all important context.  While the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870, and the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, white women were generally (if grudgingly) permitted to vote without incident from 1920 on, whereas there was virtually no Federal law enforcement of voting rights for African American men and women from 1870 until at least the 1960s (and arguably again in the 2000s), not to mention the violent extralegal intimidation and assaults enacted almost exclusively on black bodies that were seen as having disobeyed the customs of the American racial caste system.  This context is important to Steinem’s overall point:  it may be that because white women’s enfranchisement and greater opportunities for education and economic advancement weren’t met with the kind of organized political violence that met African Americans, this allows more Americans (and sadly, most liberals) to deny the significance of sexism even while they recognize and sometimes even work to atone for the corrosive effects of racism.  

One last item:  let’s pick up Steinem’s line about the “possible exception of obedient family members” that a few connected (white) women benefited from.  This is another point on which I (think I) disagree with Steinem, who makes a decent case for Clinton’s experience.  While she has a long career in public service, Senator Clinton has only been in elective office herself since 2000.  Her claims to experience have a whiff of the Chatelaine about them–I’m loathe to compare her to George W. Bush, but the differences between them are more in degree than in kind.  Both of them are coasting on someone else’s name and experience (although I think it’s clear that Hillary Clinton was much more of a political partner with Bill than George W. ever was to his father.)  I’m with Katha Pollitt and Digby on this issue, and in general on the screwed-up discourse on gender and power in the United States.  Senator Clinton wasn’t my candidate, but I would really hate to see her lose like this, amid screeches of “Iron My Shirt.”   

7 Comments »

7 Responses to ““Iron My Shirt””

  1. Bing McGhandi on 08 Jan 2008 at 10:44 am #

    But we can take heart in the fact that the blokes who did this will never, ever date again, yes?

    Hj

  2. Historiann on 08 Jan 2008 at 11:39 am #

    That’s a question for the ages, Bing. A highly refined sixth sense for dating mojo tells me that the “Iron My Shirt” guys weren’t having too much luck with the ladies anyway, but something like this might just put a nail in that coffin. (Unless those guys are trying to pick up Romney voters, in which case they’ll find a lot of women who aren’t looking out for their own best interests.)

  3. GayProf on 08 Jan 2008 at 12:20 pm #

    To reverse Steinem’s hypothetical, it seems unlikely to me that an African American man whose major credential was being married to a prominent political figure would be taken seriously either.

    It seems like there is a lot of lip service given to the notion that race and sex are intertwined ideologies, but most still believe that one trumps the other. I got here by Tenured Radical, btw.

  4. stormdervish on 08 Jan 2008 at 5:36 pm #

    Catch NPR’s OnPoint tonight for the replay of its second hour, the last 20 minutes. They play the Hillary “tears” and all the male (and probably white) guests talk about it and then Anita calls in from California. Her comments on Hillary are really interesting. And the men’s discussion from then on ratchets up a notch. They’re trying.

    To GayProf, is there such a thing as “an African American man whose major credential was being married to a prominent political figure?” I suppose there are a few, but they are still so rare that I’m not sure your point works.

    To Historiann, I admit to being really moved by Steinem’s piece, yet you’re challenges are well taken. Even if she didn’t intend to set aside the reality of black men’s vote, she still should have accounted for the backlash and violent history you point to. But you may be glossing over a lot of subtle violence against women, including white women, when they try to gain education and power. We don’t get lynched, raped, burnt out. But we get beaten, divorced, pressured, ostracized and other fun things that keep US gender stats worse than all other industrialized countries and many “third world” countries.

    In fact, by the end of your response to Steinem, I was hearing a lot of resonance with her message. Again, you are right to keep us all in line on the intersecting issues, but with her long experience she may have been assuming her readers would fill in what you’ve pointed out.

    Either way, I have been stunned by how deeply I feel Hillary’s fall in Iowa. One thing Anita says is that, based on that history you and Steinem point to, we liberal and radical women won’t have another chance to vote for such a smart, prepared, experienced, capable, progressive woman for another 30 years. Gack.

    I got here by way of Tenured Radical, too, and by way of several dissertating friends who recommended her.

  5. Historiann on 08 Jan 2008 at 6:16 pm #

    You make great points, stormdervish, and welcome to all visitors from Tenured Radical! I agree with your points about the more hidden (or domesticated?) violence and pressures white women have faced in the past century of incredible change for them. It’s this subtlety (at least compared to lynchings), and the race and class privilege that some women (like Hillary Clinton) have enjoyed that makes it harder to convince Americans–even liberals–that gender bias is in fact a major issue. Sadly, I agree with you too that HRC may be this country’s only opportunity to elect a woman president for at least a generation. That’s in one of the problems of being a Chatelaine–you’re the extenuation of someone else’s legacy, not the beginning of your own. If Senator Clinton loses the primary, the best thing she could do (in Historiann’s humble opinion) is to help select, groom, and help raise funds for a new generation of women politicians who aren’t name-brands already (neither daughters-of nor the wives-of famous men.)

  6. James Stripes on 09 Jan 2008 at 4:36 pm #

    Wait a minute. Isn’t there a Black Woman very close to the reins of power these days? Which aspect of her personhood was ignored the most by those that promoted her? Perhaps we exclude Republicans when we discuss issues of diversifying the political cadre.

    Steinem should know that Black men were present at the drafting of the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments in 1848, and the movement for women’s suffrage was stalling in the 1890s until the white women in the movement pushed black women to the margins and abandoned their original quest for sexual and racial equality. Moreover, after a Constitutional Amendment removed one legal barrier to voting by black men, it took another century to remove the bulk of the other legal means of disenfranchisement. According to many that study racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, others remain (how many black felons have been disenfranchised through the “war on drugs”?).

    When the Constitution was altered so that women could vote, they began doing so without further impediments.

  7. Historiann on 09 Jan 2008 at 5:18 pm #

    Good points, James. I think you’re referring to Condoleeza Rice in your first paragraph, no? That’s a good question, but Steinem’s column was focused on electoral politics, and Rice has never held elective office, only political appointments (albeit high-level jobs that require Senate approval.) It will be interesting to follow her post-Bush administration career.

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