“Still Brave: The Politics of Race and Gender in the 2008 Election"
Stanlie M. James
Director, African and African American Studies Program at Arizona State University
In the midst of one of the most exciting election seasons in recent years it is important to acknowledge that even in the new millennium Americans continue to suffer from two traditional problems of historical myopia and dichotomized thinking. Those problems were succinctly captured twenty five years ago in the seminal text All the Women are White, All the Men are Black but Some of us are Brave: Black Women’s Studies edited by Gloria T Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith.
This kind of thinking was exhibited in remarks made by former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro when she insisted that Barack Obama’s campaign would not have been as successful if he were a white man. Gloria Steinem also exhibited this kind of dehistoricized myopic vision in a January 8, 2008 New York Times op ed piece entitled “Women are Never Front-Runners.” She stated in part “Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the white house. “ She went on to observe “That’s why the Iowa primary was following our historical pattern of making changes. Black men were given the vote half a century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot.” Later she ask why the sex barrier is not taken as seriously as the racial one and her response to her own question is “because sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was.”
While Gloria Steinem is, and has been, a warrior in the struggle for women’s rights for at least 50 years herself, and has worked diligently to incorporate a race and class analysis into her understanding of gender she, Ferraro, and other second generation white feminist still don’t quite get it.
It is useful to recall some of that history that was alluded to in Steinem’s piece in a manner that provides some historical context for the dichotomized debates that echoes within our current presidential election season. Steinem is partially correct when she mentions that Black men were given the vote half a century before women of any race but she fails to provide the nuances of that story. In 1865 the 13th amendment to the constitution prohibited slavery while in 1868 the 14th amendment decreed that citizens could not be denied the rights guaranteed by the constitution nor could they be denied “the equal protection of laws.” But it was the 15th amendment ratified in 1870 which stated that the right to vote “could not be denied or abridged on account of race, color previous condition of servitude” that ultimately granted Black men the right to vote (not Indians or immigrants nor women of any color). […All the men are Black]
Prior to the Civil War a coalition had been forged comprised of abolitionist and suffragist and at that time the eradication of slavery was prioritized. After the war as the country struggled with the question of what to do with the “freed” peoples an argument arose over whether the 15th amendment should be supported despite its obvious shortcomings.
Fredrick Douglass argued passionately that “When women because they are women are dragged from their houses and hung upon lamp posts; when their children are torn from their arms, and their brains dashed upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; than they will have the urgency to obtain the ballot” equal to that of black people in this country. When it was pointed out to him that the Black women were being victimized in exactly those same ways, his response was that Black women were treated in this way on the basis of their race not their sex and that white middle class women had ways to redress their grievances that were not afforded to them” (i.e. black men). [All the women are White.] He had concluded that “The death of slavery did not automatically mean the birth of freedom.” And that “Slavery is not abolished until the Black man has the ballot.” […”All the men are Black”]. Douglass characterized this time in history as the “Negro’s hour” and felt strongly that universal male suffrage must be secured first (Foner 1976, 32-33).
Some Black women such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper agreed with Douglass in his support of the 15th amendment believing that it was imperative that Black men receive their voting rights because while the ballot was “desirable” for women it was “vital” for black men. Although agreeing to “let the lesser question of sex go” she also made the astute observation that “white women all go for sex, letting race occupy a minor position” when the interest of black male abolitionists were pitted against the interests of white women suffragists. But Frances E. W. Harper and Sojourner Truth both Black women abolitionists and suffragette took opposing stances on this issue. Thus Sojourner Truth advocated strongly for women to get the vote at the same time as men. Indeed after the passage of the 15th amendment Sojourner Truth in Michigan, Susan B. Anthony in New York State, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary in Washington D.C. expressed their frustrations with the limitations of the 15th amendment by attempting, unsuccessfully, to vote in several local elections (Simien 2006, 42-44; Hine 1998, 157).
Clearly opinions about this critical issue were not monolithic. Women’s Suffrage movement leadership and some of its members became openly hostile to Frederick Douglass—both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued that universal suffrage for women was no less compelling than universal male suffrage and in fact they began to express antiblack sentiment publicly as their movement began to factionalize around this question. Stanton went so far as to proclaim that “it is better to be the slave of an educated white man, than of a degraded, ignorant black one”. She moved to form the National Woman’s Suffrage Association so as to separate herself from the cause of Black people (Simien 2006, 42).
Frances Dana Gage, a less well known suffragette at the time (the author of articles on Sojourner Truth and a champion of the rights of poor white immigrant women) was part of a group that did not feel the same way about the 15th amendment which granted “universal suffrage” (to men) regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” She found the position of Anthony and Stanton indefensible and stated “Could I with breath defeat the 15th amendment I would not do it. That amendment will let the colored man enter the wide portals of human rights. Keeping them out, suffering as now, would not let me in all the sooner” (Simien 2006, 43).
What Steinem did not acknowledge in her op ed piece is that while Black men did enjoy the right to vote for a very short time in the 19th century much of the later part of that century was spent in taking the ballot from him through legal maneuvers within state constitutions, grandfather clauses and terroristic attacks—including threats, property destruction and lynching--a time that has been characterized as the nadir in our history. And when women were granted the right to vote early in the 20th century once again women were defined as white as the same tactics used against men were deployed to disenfranchised Black women. [“All the women are White”]
Including a historical perspective of “the ground we stand on” during this election means also acknowledging that it was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that “we the people” finally began to become more inclusive of people of all colors and both genders.
But as we navigate through this significant time in our history it is interesting to remember that in 1952 Charlotta Spears Bass, a Black activist and newspaper editor in California was nominated for the vice presidency of the U.S. on the Progressive Party ticket. Its platform called for an end to discrimination and segregation, unemployment and government corruption, and for peace. Bass clearly felt that neither of the main stream parties were committed to working for Black people and she campaigned fiercely-- especially against Richard Nixon. Her campaign stressed not only civil rights and peace but also the issue of women’s rights and she encouraged women to run for political office […“But Some of us are Brave”].
In 1972 Shirley Chisholm made her bid for the presidency on the democratic ticket. She ran because she felt she was qualified for the office and because she knew that she had a right to run. She had been the first black woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968 where she served for 14 years. As an early member of NOW, a founder of the national Women’s Political Caucus and spokesperson for the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) she was definitely a feminist. She was disappointed by the lack of support for her campaign from both Black men and white women—Black men resented her because they felt the first Black to be a candidate for the office of president should be a male while some prominent feminist provided conditional support. In fact Gloria Steinem, for example, signaled the media that she would support Chisholm’s candidacy in the states where George McGovern was not on the primary ballot.
This is an exciting and historic election season. While the visual image of the original slate of Republican candidate appeared to be usual suspects—middle aged (to older) white men—there was a bit of nuance with one candidate being a Mormon and the other an Evangelical Christian. Lest we forget, on the Democrat side the first cut included a white woman, a Black male, a Hispanic male and a white male who was wealthy enough to get his populist views aired (this in itself was an interesting contradiction)
While it is easier to identify historical dichotomized nuances such as male/female; black/white and even richer or poorer, it is more uncomfortable to identify the dichotomous lapses that characterize these contemporary times. What if the debate was expanded to incorporate Hispanic and Latino voters instead of, or in addition to, the typical focus on the Black and white dichotomy? NPR recently reported that 44% of all Hispanics had voted for Bush while since 1960 up to 85% of all voting Blacks voted for Democrats. How does religion factor into this round of presidential politics? There are some 10 million Hispanic evangelicals which rises to some 15 million if you include charismatic Catholic Hispanics so what role will religion play among Hispanic voters? What are the gender politics among Hispanics and how does class affect their voting patterns? Do Mexicans vote differently from Cubans or Puerto Ricans in the South, or the West or the Midwest for example? Will the Republican hard line stance on immigration lose the Hispanic vote despite their social conservatism? Why did Hillary Clinton seem to resonate more with Hispanics than Barack Obama? That difference in voting preferences appears to reflect an underlying tension between Hispanics and Blacks and suggests a critical need for careful analysis of this Black/Brown divide. Why aren’t Blacks more supportive of Hispanics around the issue of immigration? Blacks, Browns, and indeed Native Americans and Asian Pacific Americans, heterosexuals, bi and homosexuals must focus on and articulate our commonalities around issues of social justice and human rights. What would it mean for America to actually become a multi cultural, multi racial society in the 21st century? Such a society could in turn have a pronounced effect on the way in which we address the impact of globalization on all of us but most especially on the poor among us.
Rather than squabbling over whether a white woman or a Black man should have the opportunity to be a historic first we must imagine a vision that incorporates issues that reflect the integrated kaleidoscopic realities of race, class and gender in 21st century America. We must demand that our candidates and their supporters carefully explore and present to voters thoughtful proposals that emerge from and reflect the historicized context mentioned above so that voters can in turn make thoughtful decisions about the future of our country in this globalized world [it is imperative that …“Some of us are Brave”!]
Foner, Philip S. ed. 1976. Frederick Douglass on Women’s Rights. Westport, Ct., Greenwood Press
Hine, Darlene Clark and Kathleen Thompson, 1998. A Shining Thread of Hope: the History of Black Women in America. New York, Broadway Books.
Hull, Gloria T., Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith eds. 1982. All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, but Some of Us are Brave: Black Women’s Studies. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York
Simien, Evelyn M., 2006. Black Feminist Voices in Politics. Albany, State University of New York Press.
Stanlie M. James is Director of African and African American Studies Program at Arizona State University and Professor Emerita University of Wisconsin, Madison.