Local & State Voices

The black-white feminist divide

As Hillary Clinton prepares to end her historic run for president this week, I'm reminded of Sojourner Truth.

In 1851, Truth – one the first feminists, if you will – gave a rousing speech about the rights of women that highlighted the dichotomy of being black and a woman. A free black woman during slavery times, she spoke at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention:

“Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the Negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about?

“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man … and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?”

Sojourner Truth's plaintive plea asking “Ain't I a woman?” is the feminist fissure that separates many black women from white women on rights issues and the struggle to overcome long-standing barriers to achievement. The rancor and rhetoric of the race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination has put a spotlight on the division.

Truth's words are much more than the acknowledgment that women could do what men could do – and deserved the same rights. It was also an acknowledgment that for black women, there is no separating being black from being woman.

For black women, the fight has always been – had to be – tackling the injustices that came with both at the same time. Pitting race against gender was self-defeating. Unfortunately, the competition this year between the first African American and female candidates to seriously contend for the presidency had some people doing just that.

I read it first from Gloria Steinem, one of the most prominent feminists of the 20th century. Her New York Times op-ed column in January asserted that “gender is probably the most restricting force in American life,” implied that black men had an edge on white women because “they were given the vote a half-century before women of any race” (no matter that they were terrorized, beaten and lynched for trying to exercise it), and insinuated that a woman with Obama's biography could never be elected to Congress, let alone be a “viable candidate to head the most powerful nation on earth.”

Steinem should meet Sue Myrick, who had virtually no political experience when she defeated Harvey Gantt to become Charlotte's mayor, and then in short order went on to become Congresswoman Sue Myrick.

Steinem was trying to make some legitimate points about how sexism remains a pervasive part of our society, and how far too many people are dismissive of the notion and haven't worked hard enough to help break down sex barriers. She's right. Gender discrimination is alive and well, and still limits the opportunities of far too many talented women.

But in making her point, she engaged in the same pernicious and dismissive comments about blacks that others engage in about women. Former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro echoed them, and went her one further: “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is.”

The feminist movement has never been the sisterhood for black women that it has been for white women. The problems black women confront dealing with race and gender never were central to the agenda. And too often, black women were summoned to the feminist cause only on an “as-needed” basis.

The acrimony of this Democratic race spotlighted a long-standing rift, and may have furthered deepened the divide. That's a shame. Women of all colors share many of the same goals. Race and gender are issues that should unite us.