MAXWELL:  Gender bias is largely ignored

5/22/2008 – Printed in the NATIONAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

While Sen. Barack Obama focused on a probable general election contest against Sen. John McCain at his stop Wednesday in Tampa, Sen. Hillary Clinton argued in South Florida that the contest for the Democratic nomination for president is not over.
Yet even as the Democratic primary season finally draws toward the end, much is still being made of who has had more prejudice to overcome, Clinton, the viable female candidate, or Obama, the viable black candidate.
Honest people of all hues acknowledge that race has been a factor in the primaries and will be one in the general election. Obama even delivered a major speech on race in hopes of putting the nation’s rawest issue to the side, at least until after November.
We have been far less willing to acknowledge that gender bias is also a factor. In fact, many people are accusing Clinton – the victim – of whining and “acting just like a woman” because she argues that her sex plays a major role in how she is treated, especially in the male-dominated news media. Many older women who came of age during the early days of the feminist movement agree with her, and they are angry.
Listening to Clinton detractors, I was reminded of Shirley Chisholm, the first black person to run for president. Before announcing her campaign in 1972, Chisholm served in the New York General Assembly representing Brooklyn from 1964 to 1968. She was the first black woman elected to Congress, serving from 1969 to 1983.
Chisholm, who died in 2005, was fully qualified to run for president, but she had the double challenge of being a woman and a black person. Circumstances could not have been worse for a presidential candidate. (By the way, she received 151 delegate votes at the Democratic National Convention in Miami.)
In a 1970 essay for McCall’s magazine, Chisholm describes what life was like being both black and female in the corridors of power. I quote her at length because of her candor and because of the essay’s value as social commentary.
“Being the first black woman elected to Congress has made me some kind of phenomenon,” she writes. “I was the first to overcome both handicaps at once. Of the two handicaps, being a black is much less of a drawback than being female. If I said that being black is a greater handicap than being a woman, probably no one would question me. Why? Because ‘we all know’ there is prejudice against black people in America.
“That there is prejudice against women is an idea that still strikes nearly all men – and, I am afraid, most women – as bizarre. … Part of the problem is that women in America are much more brainwashed and content with their roles as second-class citizens than blacks ever were.”
She explains that during her 20-plus years in politics, she and other women did as much or more scut work as men, but men almost always reaped the prized rewards: “When I tried to break out of that role in 1963 and run for the New York State Assembly seat from Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, the resistance was bitter. From the start of that campaign, I faced undisguised hostility because of my sex.
“But it was four years later, when I ran for Congress, that the question of my sex became a major issue. Among members of my own party, closed meetings were held to discuss ways of stopping me.”
Chisholm writes that she was admonished to stay in her “place” as a woman: “Plenty of (people) have advised me, every time I tried to take another upward step, that I should go back to teaching, a woman’s vocation, and leave politics to the men. I love teaching, and I am ready to go back to it as soon as I am convinced that this country no longer needs a woman’s contribution.”
Like Clinton today, Chisholm believed in 1970 that women possess special gifts and traits that can make the nation a better place: “It is women who can bring empathy, tolerance, insight, patience, and persistence to government – the qualities we naturally have or have had to develop because of our suppression by men. The women of a nation mold its morals, its religion, and its politics by the lives they live. At present, our country needs women’s idealism and determination, perhaps more in politics than anywhere else.”
I am certain that Chisholm would not be surprised by the sexism Clinton faces. While Chisholm had seen some prejudice ease against blacks, she lamented the future for women: “How much harder will it be to eliminate the prejudice against women? I am sure it will be a longer struggle.”
Indeed, the struggle continues.