Clinton, Steinem, and ‘Running As a Woman’

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Hillary Clinton; Gloria Steinem. Photo: Corbis, Getty Images

If you’ve been paying any attention to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, you’re aware that she is “running as a woman” this time around. "I may not be the youngest candidate in this race, but I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States,” she said at her first official campaign rally. "Don't you someday want to see a woman president of the United States of America?" she asked at an EMILY’s List event in March. "I expect to be judged on my merits," Clinton told the Des Moines Register, "and the historic nature of my candidacy is one of the merits that I hope people take into account."

This is a far cry from 2008, when her primary opponent was a black man whose candidacy was also historic. “I don’t think either of us wants to inject race or gender in this campaign,” Hillary Clinton said in a Meet the Press appearance in January 2008. The statement seemed downright laughable. The primary had reached a fever pitch, race and gender were omnipresent in the public debate, and we were all trying to figure out how much a candidate’s identity should matter to us.

Just two days before Hillary’s Meet the Press plea, Gloria Steinem had written an op-ed in the New York Times. In it, she argued that “Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life.” Yet, the feminist icon asked, “Why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one?” She characterized older women — who were more likely than their younger counterparts to support Clinton over Obama — as more radical. Later in the column, she contradicted herself: “I’m not advocating a competition for who has it toughest. The caste systems of sex and race are interdependent and can only be uprooted together.”

Steinem’s op-ed nearly gave me a rage aneurysm. It was the perfect distillation of the long-running feminist divides and dilemmas brought to the surface by the 2008 primary. In some ways, I suppose it was unavoidable given the subject matter. Hillary is, as Rebecca Traister wrote recently, “a figure who's served as a stand-in for the ways her generation of disruptive women changed the world for my generation.” Hillary is also a stand-in for the ways her generation of feminists fell short, and few things made that clearer than Steinem’s op-ed. Intentionally or not, it confirmed the worst feminist stereotypes: Not that we’re all hairy-pitted, goddess-worshipping man-skeptics (because those stereotypes are not that insulting and sort of true), but that we’re all race-blind white women who refused to view the election of the first black president as a potential feminist victory, too. Of course, no one speaks for a movement as diverse as feminism, but Steinem comes pretty darn close. Hence, my rage aneurysm.

The article faded from short-term memory as Obama accepted the nomination and most former Hillary supporters — Steinem included — enthusiastically supported his general-election run. But the deeper we get into the 2016 campaign, the more I’ve found myself thinking about that op-ed and the divides it represented. Steinem apparently has, too. In her new memoir, My Life on the Road, she devotes a few pages to describing that op-ed and the fallout from it. In 2016, Hillary’s strongest opponent is an old white guy, which means the primary doesn’t feel quite so loaded with intersectional feminist tension. But don’t let that fool you. The old wounds exposed by the 2008 campaign — and some fresh ones it opened — have yet to heal.

During the 2008 campaign, I was a 26-year-old blogger for Feministing, a site by and for young feminists. And so I was well aware that many of those younger feminists Steinem’s op-ed characterized as less radical were, in fact, Obama supporters in part because we were trying to find new ways of navigating mainstream feminist politics that still, despite women’s-studies discussions of intersectionality, considered the concerns of heterosexual, cisgender, white women to be paramount. It was clear that ranking gender and race as competing issues was itself damaging and hurtful, particularly to black women. “To me, and many other younger feminists, it’s far more radical to embrace a feminism that’s inextricable from my antiwar, pro-gay-rights, anti-racist beliefs,” I wrote back then. “I don’t have a feminist obligation to vote for Hillary Clinton.”

I wasn’t the only one who was angry that Steinem presented a vote for a white woman as more radical than a vote for a black man. She appeared the following week on Democracy Now! with author and academic Melissa Harris-Perry, who explained that feminists of color are “often asked to join up with white women’s feminism, but only on their own terms.” Steinem claimed she’d been misunderstood: “My plea was really directed at the press to take all forms of discrimination seriously. And I’m very sorry if the parallel, you know, was not — didn’t make that clear in the beginning.”

Reflecting on this incident in her memoir, she characterizes critiques like Harris-Perry’s as “attacks” from people who were “accusing me of holding a position I didn’t hold.” She claims that people just didn’t understand she was trying to say that gender is more restrictive than race “in terms of pervasiveness, not degree.” She blames the backlash on an ambiguous pull-quote and the media’s hunger for conflict. But Steinem also accepts some responsibility herself: “I hadn’t made every sentence bulletproof. Definitely my fault.” Then, she notes, “Many diverse friends called to comfort me.” It’s a defensive aside, in the vein of “I have a ton of black friends.” I cringed when I read the word “diverse.”

What’s so disappointing about the whole thing is that Steinem has a long history of working in coalition with women of color. And, like Hillary Clinton herself, Steinem believes firmly in racial justice and equality. “I mean, most of the young women in my life are still mad at Hillary about that racial divisiveness,” a friend said to me recently. It’s been hard not to notice that most of the people I know who were staunchly anti-Clinton in 2008 have become vocal Bernie Sanders supporters.

I have to admit that it’s been far easier to like Hillary in 2016 than it was in 2008. For one thing, the campaign is not as black-and-white this cycle. It also doesn’t hurt that this is probably her last shot at the presidency, which makes it seem like our collective last best chance for a while to field such a strong female candidate. I still don’t believe I have a feminist obligation to vote for Hillary Clinton, but I’ve softened toward her. And the rage I felt toward Steinem has mostly dissipated, too — I loved her book. Maybe I’m just growing less radical with age.